History of Joseph Smith by His Mother
by Lucy Mack Smith
Review by Karl Wolff
History of Joseph Smith by His mother is one of the oddest books in the history of American religious literature. Joseph Smith, Jr. was the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Latter-day Saints (LDS) are also known by their nickname, “The Mormons.” In the History of Joseph Smith, we get the biography of Prophet Joseph as told by his mother. Beginning with her family history, we read of Joseph’s birth, struggles with his faith, receiving The Record (later to become The Book of Mormon), the development and persecution of the early Church, and the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph and his brother Hyrum.
Mormonism is a uniquely odd American religion.* This isn’t another off-the-cuff insult to the religion, but more of a grudging historical and cultural appraisal. One can’t simply sweep Mormonism under the carpet or dismiss it as yet another crackpot religion founded by a charlatan. That’s too easy and too binary. Either/or judgment calls don’t forward intellectual investigation. Ivy League eminence Harold Bloom wrote an admiring appraisal of Mormonism in The American Religion: The Emergence of a Post-Christian Nation. When Mitt Romney became a real contender for the Presidency and The Book of Mormon: the musical is a Broadway smash, there’s no excuse for not being educated on this particular religion.
Joseph Smith, Jr. and the Latter-day Saints have had no shortage of histories, biographies, and cultural appraisals written about them (by both insiders and outsiders). History of Joseph Smith by His mother is arguably the most odd. The oddness occurs because Mormonism has developed and grown within such a short period of time. Joseph Smith, Jr. (1805 – 1844) short life encompassed the latter part of Revolutionary America and the onset of Jacksonian democracy. This is key to understanding the Prophet’s revelations and the nature of Mormon theology. History gives relatively short shrift to the revelations and theology, focusing more on family history, everyday trials and tribulations, and the journey from upstate New York to Nauvoo, Illinois.
Joseph Smith received his revelations and translated the Book of Mormon amid the Second Great Awakening (1790 – 1840), a major Protestant revival. This revival brought about populist and egalitarian religious sentiment. Circuit riding preachers and raucous tent revivals criss-crossed the nation, especially the East Coast. But Mormonism was different. During his youth, Joseph felt much anxiety and confusion about what denomination to join. Through his vision of the Angel Moroni, he came to the conclusion that he had to found his own church since all others were in apostasy. As years went by, he received more revelations, from angels, prophets, and Jesus and Jehovah. The latter two being men with physical form. Other specific “American” concepts include Jesus’s post-crucifixion mission to the Americas. The Prophet also believed both the Garden of Eden and the Last Judgment would take place on American soil. And the controversial concept of man becoming like gods is a distinctly American idea. (Brigham Young, not Joseph Smith, originated this idea in 1852.) While it sounds blasphemous, it speaks toward the egalitarian zeitgeist that swept the country during Andrew Jackson’s presidency.
He created two levels of priesthood (Aaronic and Melchizedek), preached about the three levels of Heaven (Terrestrial, Telestial, and Celestial). He also taught about “celestial marriage,” an important sacrament in the Church. To Gentiles (aka Non-Mormons), celestial marriage means polygamy. While this was one of the flashpoints that created animosity against the Mormons, celestial marriage gets no mention in History. Upon first blush, it would appear that Joseph Smith had a monogamous relationship with his wife Emma.
Why the whitewash? A telling hint is History‘s initial publication date. Originally published in 1853, Brigham Young opposed it, saying it was full of errors. A corrected version appeared in 1902. The date is especially important, since 1902 was after Utah was granted statehood. As other Western states received statehood, Utah remained a territory. Why? The short answer is polygamy. Young also opposed it because the book looks favorably on William Smith, a possibly successor to the Prophet Joseph. Harold Bloom in The American Religion likens Mormonism to Islam, not only because both faiths follow the revelations of a prophet. Like Islam, the Mormons had a succession crisis. Following the Prophet’s martyrdom, many competing factions rose up. The faction with Brigham Young as the successor to Joseph Smith sees itself as the one true legitimate Church. Although a perfunctory look on Wikipedia has several Mormon factions and off-shoots existing today.
The History of Joseph Smith by His Mother offers a unique perspective on an American icon. Persecuted in their day and even subject to an “Extermination Order” by the Governor of Missouri, Mormonism has transformed from a strange heretical off-shoot of Christianity into a major, legitimate denomination.
*For an even-handed history of Mormonism, see Mormon America by Richard N. Ostling and Joan K. Ostling.
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Coming next: The Cremaster Cycle by Matthew Barney