RSR: The Politics and Personality of a Prophet

For many good reasons, Joseph Smith has always been the least known and the most speculated about of all the prophets of this dispensation. For starters, there is simply the paucity of contemporary records: Joseph went from being a poor, uneducated frontier farmer to a harried and persecuted religious leader, neither of which are ways of life conducive to accurate and regular record-keeping, especially on the American frontier in the early 19th century. But perhaps more important, there is the simple fact that Joseph was the first: all of the expectations and formalities we associate with the label “a living prophet”–an otherwise quite radical phrase–today were, to a great extent, worked out by Joseph in an ad hoc fashion; thus, he never benefitted from them himself. So to figure out the meaning of Joseph’s life and work–for himself, for those around him, and for the church both then and today–one almost invariably starts reading the present into the past, assuming that priesthood and revelation and church work and all the modes of consciousness which attend such in Joseph’s time were about the same as they are now. I say “almost invariably,” because it is avoidable: Richard Bushman has done so. More than any other work of church history I have ever read, Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith knits together the many scattered accounts of Joseph’s life, to truly show us something of what he thought was happening to him and around him at the time it was happening. He gives our Prophet a personality, and a politics too. For accomplishing that, Rough Stone Rolling is nothing less than a masterpiece of LDS literature.

What kind of personality does Bushman see in Joseph? An expansive, passionate, and sensitive one. He was always reaching out and trying to draw more and more of the world into himself–not because of pride, but because of a sense of deep estrangement that desired above all kinship, friendship, unity and peace. Young Joseph, as Bushman presents him, was sensitive to the fallenness and alienation of humankind; he felt it desperately himself, and it showed in his revelatory work. He was emotional and enthusiastic by nature: quick to trust and quick to reject and then quick to forgive once again; deeply moved by the beauty of the world, yet wretched at his own and others’ inability to connect with it. Joseph’s earliest accounts of his first vision of God emphasized both mourning and release: like “countless other revival subjects,” Joseph looked back on his experience as a boy and told of both a warning from the Lord that “the world lieth in sin” as well as an assurance of personal forgiveness (pg. 39). While the latter filled him with great joy, for Joseph it was the former which played most upon his mind–in part, Bushman suggests, because the broken quality of both Joseph himself and the world around him was so apparent, in his family and relationships. Joseph, in his early writings, “frequently felt cast down, lacking, or falling short, never enjoying all that he needed”; despite his obvious (in some cases arguably immature or at least boyish) excitement about the marvelous artifacts and gifts which God brought forth through him, for the most part in Joseph’s journals the dominant voice “was not triumphant . . . his ‘History’ contains more pleading with God than excitement about revelation” (pg. 234). Even in the scriptures he brought forth, as numerous scholars have noted, both the doctrine and the narrative tend to emphasize again and again traditionally pious themes: the inescapability of sin, the transitory quality of human repentance and success, and the need of all people to seek for an encompassing and infinite savior to redeem them from out of this world. “In these early writings,” Bushman concludes, referring to both the Book of Mormon and the Book of Moses, “Joseph was a prophet of sorrow” (pg. 141).

It is interesting the degree to which the ideas of church government which Joseph laid out did not acknowledge or respond to such depressing realities in a typically American liberal fashion. On the contrary, Bushman observes that “Joseph’s confidence in the righteousness of [priesthood leaders] seems naive” (pg. 269). As Joseph’s thinking about the revelations he received crystalized, he moved towards a reduction in his own prophetic, “executive” role in the church, instead seeking to make church councils into a “charismatic bureaucracy” (pg. 258). Bushman compares the democractic-sounding but in practice (except in marginal cases) authoritarian church which emerged by the late 1830s from out of the scattered local councils that had preceded it to classical republican forms. It is an interesting comparison to make: in the same way that the authority of republican leaders depended upon their devotion to virtue, the authority of the priesthood depended upon the righteousness of its holders (pg. 268). But the best comparison, I think, is one which echoes Joseph’s constant search for unity and peace: the way certain romantic and pietistic thinkers, from the 17th to the 19th centuries, held moral authority and contentment to be instantiated through participation in their local conventicles and congregations; by constantly returning and tending to the authentic source of their own community (for Lutheran pietists, the Bible or devotional works like those by Johann Arndt or Philip Spener; for the Latter-day Saints, the “endowment of power” that Joseph variously sought to entrust to the church through new scripture, priesthood ordinances, patriarchal blessings, and finally the temple), the authority, direction and justification for action in that community would follow without need for debate. I am not suggesting that Joseph’s teachings were necessarily influenced by remnants of radical Protestant or Puritan social models in New England; I think his vision originated solely from his own appreciation of the Bible in general and the revelations he received in particular. Still, Bushman missed an opportunity to explore more pointedly the romantic and communitarian Joseph, who early on eschewed democracy (despite paying it lip-service in the jargon and office-titles of his emerging church–pg. 265) not primarily because of a recognized need for righteous paternalism in the social order, but because of an admittedly “naive” belief that in a righteous community “authority” emerges from the will of all equally, making the actual employment of that authority a matter of minimal interest or concern. In fact, one might suggest that from the first introduction of priesthood authority in 1831, Joseph foresaw in embryo the contemporary church system of “common consent,” wherein the “teaching of correct principles” would in itself constitute a “governing” (a disciplining, submitting, and committing) of the self. Through such mutual, lay submission, a positive liberty obtains: spiritual confirmation and the reception of power would create an environment of “kindness” and “pure knowledge.”

Two poignant passages from Bushman’s pen underline this early vision of Joseph’s. He describes a conference in June, 1831, “[i]n a log schoolhouse on a hill in a forested countryside, [where] plain people of little education and much zeal sit before [Joseph] on slab benches.” As Joseph binds them through his preaching of “his visions and their possibilities . . . [t]hey listen transfixed, puzzled, and sometimes fearful. . . . Sometimes they are uncertain. Sometimes they burn with perfect certainty. They feel their lives are being elevated, their persons empowered. The concerns of farms, shops, and families drop away, and they dedicate their lives to the work” (pg. 160). What kind of work? For many, missionary work, preaching Christ far and wide. But also, simply the work of membership, of changing one’s person and temper and interests into that which supports the whole. In a second passage, following a long chapter discussing Joseph’s own susceptibility to anger, depression and feuding, and his wish for Zion as an alternative to the compromised world of offense and insult he knew so intimately, Bushman describes the Prophet’s reaction to a simple act of charity: some of his friends cutting his family’s winter’s wood one day in December, 1835. In this humble act, the sort that even a fallen man can perform for a neighbor, Joseph saw the occasion to praise and bless in his fellow man the gifts of the body, then the mind, and then the heart, and then ultimately the promise of everlasting life (pgs. 302-303). The Zion which Joseph longed for, and the vision of which that inspired so many others, was to be just such a neighborly place: a place of social peace, a refuge from both personal and political contestation as well as economic deprivation. It was an alternative which Joseph may well have thought only those simple men and women who knew their own weakness and dependency could build–since they alone were graced with the ability to find spiritual strength outside the substitutes and refinements which more worldly organizations offer.

Of course, the argument which has always been brought against such romantic utopias is that they do not provide sufficient institutional strength for those times when adversity challenges the common purposes they depend upon. And it is an argument which is relevant to Joseph’s story, since to say that Joseph did not change as he grew is, Bushman demonstrates, a clear falsehood. The dedication of the Kirtland temple in 1836, the relatively rapid collapse of the Kirtland community soon thereafter, and the months of conflict and imprisonment in Missouri that followed, all make for a definite turning point; the Joseph who came to Nauvoo in 1839 was not the same man he was three years previously. Following the dedication, Bushman informs us that “the frequency of announced revelations slowed . . . doctrine came through sermons, offhand comments, and letters, reports on revelations rather than full revelations themselves . . . [Joseph] began to speak of revelations they could [the Saints] could not bear . . . On the large issues of the next eight years–plural marriage, the temple endowment, the plans for the kingdom of God–we hear virtually nothing from Joseph himself” (pgs. 320-322). A major part of this, of course, is simply the vicissitudes of record-keeping turning an often chaotic and violent time. But that is not all of it. Joseph, in his later years, seems less focused on finding some healing of the world, to say nothing of his and his friends’ and family’s place in it. Perhaps the violent crucible of Missouri dissuaded him from continuing to seek solace and unity by drawing as much of the world as he could into a settled and stable harmony, and instead convinced him that he needed instead to constantly build and plan and grow, leaving somewhat aside the humility and simplicity that characterized his earlier efforts and embracing the desperate pace of the world–indeed, outpacing it, if at all possible. Hence, Joseph accustomed himself to the idea of being “news,” of having a place in the contestations of the public world, of having a story to tell and interests to press (pgs. 377, 390). In Nauvoo, “the refuge principle [of Zion] was reduced to a minor theme,” and Joseph no longer spoke of “an immediate end to the wicked world” (pg. 415). The plans he conceived for cites of Zion in Missouri had been communalistic (even farmers who worked land outside the city would live within it), organized by quorums, with multiple temples serving as sites of not just worship but also civic coordination (pgs. 220-221); Joseph’s plans for Nauvoo, while still focused on the temple, abandoned the consecration of property, made room for “the drills and splendor of civic life” (complete with martial costumes and titles for Joseph and those closest to him), and ultimately aimed for the building of a great capital, rather than merely a holy city (pgs. 405, 414, 423-424). He not entirely reluctantly threw himself into public arguments over the regional politics of Illinois; in defense of his people as anti-Mormon hostility developed once again, rather than speaking apocalyptically Joseph presented himself as a true “son of America” and launched an apparently seriously intended candidacy for U.S. President (pgs. 513-517).

One could, of course, see this as a simple maturing through experience: the idealistic Joseph is harshly brought down to earth, and thus becomes more “mainstream” in his attempts to implement the revelations he has received. But that doesn’t fit the historical record very well. As Bushman details with admirable care, it is during the post-Missouri years that the accusation of antinomianism–particularly in regard to marriage laws and polygamy–has its greatest force. It is fascinating to reflect upon, as Bushman’s expert prose makes possible, the contradictions that drove Joseph in the 1840s. He seems to have been convinced simultaneously of the need to emphasize the distinction of the Mormon project from that of other churches amongst those who accepted his claims (a conviction which coincided with an often much more demanding interpretation of “acceptance”), while at the same time resisting the tendency for such a distinction to translate into a rejection of ordinary society. For example, Joseph’s accounts of the First Vision changed over the years: “[t]he promise of forgiveness through faith in Christ was dropped from the narrative, and the apostasy of Christian churches stood as the central message of the vision,” (pg. 40); at the same time, Joseph in Nauvoo explicitly encouraged greater religious diversity and tolerance amongst his people (pgs. 415-416). One can also see this dynamic in Joseph’s church and personal affairs. In Nauvoo, Joseph was willing to embrace–and had the opportunity to embrace–as never before the reputation and regular responsibilities that come with being a husband, father, businessman, citizen, public figure and civic leader; at the same time, developments which he initiated within the church and his own life, developments which he often kept restricted and secret, and sometimes outright denied when asked about them, kept him on the run, pursuing an ever more desperate and unsettled pace. (And that running metaphor was often quite literal: in the last few chapters of his book, Bushman shows us with great sympathy a Joseph who often was frantically on the run, from town to town or from house to house or even from wife to wife, while Emma or dissenters or anti-Mormon lawmen watched carefully and distrustfully.) He recorded dreams which suggested he saw all around him as turning against him, and yet at the same time, as Bushman makes clear, feared nothing so much as being alone (pgs. 485-486, 499).

Perhaps it isn’t surprising, then, that the extremes of Joseph’s personality become more apparent in the last stage of his life. Joseph had always been impulsive, and accounts of his early years show a young man frequently penitent about his own roughness and jocularity. Such mourning and repentance may have continued in his later years, and simply was never recorded; then again, perhaps he had outgrown such regrets or suppressed them, having lost the (arguably immature) hope that one could find in this world any particular place or teaching that could recuse one entirely from one’s lot in life. Perhaps he was simply moving too fast for such reflection. In any case, it is in Nauvoo that the records give us the rambunctious, sometimes irreverent, and not infrequently boastful prophet (pgs. 483-484). Such extremes surely lay at least in part behind his elaboration of the “Kingdom of God” and the Council of Fifty in the last months of his life. (Incidentally, this is the only time in the biography that Bushman appears to make what looks to me like a curt aside about the church’s support of this biography, writing that “the council’s original records are not available to researchers”–pg. 521.) The doctrine of “theodemocracy” which Joseph said he stood for in a sermon in 1844, is by no means entirely unrelated to his earlier, more pious vision of Zion from the Kirtland and Missouri eras; but neither, at least if the other writings Bushman marshals are any evidence, is it entirely the same. In the intervening years, Joseph had introduced the temple ceremony as the fullest expression of that “endowment of power” he had always sought to instantiate in and through the church, and the language of that ceremony was much more explicitly hierarchical: holy communities would be led by priests and kings, who should be prepared to step in and rule as monarchs or aristocrats over the community itself should the people–apparently envisioned or at least accepted here as agents unto themselves as opposed to members of a covenanted unit–support laws which are not just. As Bushman summarizes Joseph’s views, “[r]ule by the wise seemed more sensible than government by the mistaken” (pg. 523). Again, Joseph’s notions of monarchy were still outgrowths of what he had made of God’s revealed will before: his position of “King and Ruler over Israel” was bestowed upon him by the Council by vote, thus suggesting a kind of constitutional monarchy, and the constitution of the Kingdom itself was not written, but was “living,”embodied in the participation and involvement of the members themselves (pg. 524). So the goal of a consecrated group entering into a place of mutually felt power and peace remained. But it was a smaller group now, a group within a group, a secret group, a group of those few who could catch onto the coattails of the whirlwind that the Prophet in his last days became. To those–like many of his earliest friends and supporters–who preferred the humbler, more communal and “naive” vision of Zion of the Kirtland or Missouri era, a vision so much more in line with innumerable other 19th-century American efforts to revivify Christianity, what Joseph became in later years was unacceptable. But perhaps, in the face of the crushing opposition and violent dissent, such secretive, complicated, transitory moments of unity is the best that any religion can offer.

Joseph was killed; the church endured, moved west under the leadership of Brigham Young, and flourished. For years, I assumed that the experiences of the church in Utah were uniquely a result of its particular time and place: under Brigham’s leadership, we experimented with communal economic and social orders, defiantly lived the doctrine of polygamy, shrugged off the modern world in general and the U.S. in particular, and sought to build a theocracy in the desert. Of course, we ultimately failed to do that, but the decades of struggle which came out of that effort–the longings, regrets, compromises and so forth–make us what we are today. In that sense, I had long felt that while Joseph was our Prophet, it was Brigham and the Utah years which gave us the range of possibilities and concerns that define the sociality of our religion today. Thanks to Bushman, I don’t think that any longer. I now see that the same tense engagement with the world–over authority, pluralism, social justice, respect for law, and righteousness–that was writ large throughout the Utah-era church’s long and violent showdown with American modernity had been foreshadowed, on a very local and sometimes even very intimate scale, in the life and work of Joseph Smith. He has the first to receive the burden of living at a prophetic life, of leading those who accept the Book of Mormon and the gifts which attend it in the project of turning Christian teaching into practical living. Despite all of the changes since Joseph’s day, despite all of the ways the public church has quietly learned from his efforts, despite all that has been added to and removed from his legacy by subsequent prophets and revelations, the fact remains that his short life continues to define the basic choices and opportunities which lay before this church, and indeed probably before any group that seeks to bring the revelatory into the modern liberal democratic order. This, then, is the best thing I can say about Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith: that it has taught me that we are, after all, Joseph’s church still.

Richard Bushman responds:

Russell Arben Fox’s review of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, besides presenting an evaluation of the book, contains within it a broad interpretation of Joseph Smith’s achievement. He suggests a meaning for his life that puts the Prophet’s work into a new light from beginning to end. What could be more satisfying to an author than to stimulate the kind of speculation which Fox offers? And what is more hopeful for Mormon letters than to have these thoughts expressed beautifully? I wish I had written some of the passages Fox purports to draw out of the book.

He suggests that Joseph envisioned a model of community governance that was authoritarian in appearance but deeply participatory in operation: “Joseph foresaw in embryo the contemporary church system of ‘common consent,’ wherein the ‘teaching of correct principles’ would in itself constitute a ‘governing’ (a disciplining, submitting, and committing) of the self. Through such mutual, lay submission, a positive liberty obtains.” Because communal governance emerges from the will of all, ‘the actual employment of that authority’ is ‘a matter of minimal interest or concern.’ In other words, because we all love and honor President Hinckley, the immense power he wields is not experienced as domineering or alien. We have granted him the authority to speak and act for all, and so he speaks for us as well as for God. I am sure that Fox would concede that not everyone under the Church’s broad umbrella willingly grants governing power to President Hinckley, but he could never exercise his authority if the huge body of faithful Saints did not approve. Mormons are not jealous of governing power as political liberals are but wish to enhance the Prophet’s authority and seek its blessing on their lives. This fact of Mormon life is perhaps its most puzzling aspect for liberal reporters writing about the Church.

Fox emphasizes the satisfactions of membership in a community grounded in mutuality. The conventicles and congregations of seventeenth-century Puritans before Joseph enjoyed unity and peace, and so did the Saints who joined the Mormons in the 1830s. The Mormon Zion became ‘a place of social peace, a refuge from both personal and political contestation as well as economic deprivation’–at least before the Missouri expulsion in 1839. The encounter with violence in Missouri deflated Joseph’s romantic dreams. In Nauvoo, in Fox’s scheme, Joseph saw the need to embrace ‘the desperate pace of the world,’ to have a place in ‘the contestations of the public world,’ and leave aside ‘the humility and peace’ of the earlier Zion. He aimed to construct ‘a great capital, rather than merely a holy city.’ As he was thrust more and more into the public arena, he tried simultaneously to be part of the world (he tolerated all religions in Nauvoo) and still to distinguish Mormonism from the world. His doctrines became more radical–plural marriage and the temple–while he became more active as mayor and lieutenant general. The hope for simple mutuality bonding the inhabitants of Zion into a romantic utopian sodality were replaced by a hierarchy of kings and priests and an inner circle of favored ones who shared in this authority.

Apparently Fox once thought that this engagement in worldly contestation coupled with distinctive Mormon retreats into the temple had been the legacy of Brigham Young’s era. Joseph was the idealist, Brigham the pragmatist. Now, he says, he finds the seeds of Brigham’s Utah in Joseph’s Nauvoo. Joseph too had to pull back from the romantic communitarianism of the early Zion to the practical politics of Illinois. The question is have we retreated from the true way in engaging the world. Have we lost something precious? The early Saints felt the expulsion from Jackson County was a defeat. They were denied entrance into their holy land. And as if stung by the rejection, the Mormons never reinstituted the consecration of properties in its pure form. They paid tithing, they cooperated, they experimented, but never required the whole program for the entire Church. Was that a regrettable loss?

I think not. I think Fox would agree that the Smith-Young legacy is still vital in all its parts. Political practicality has not extinguished our utopian idealism. As Fox says at the beginning, the mutuality of the early Zion persists in the virtually unanimous consent to the Prophet’s authority. Modern Mormons still retreat into the Church community for refuge from the strife of the world; we still find unity and peace in our wards as the Puritans did in their conventicles.

Moreover, backing down some from utopianism may have been for the best. For being an inveterate idealist, Joseph was a practical man. He had experience enough with the bickering that consecration evoked. After struggling manfully to organize the Jackson County Saints and failing, he let a compassionate capitalism govern the economy in Nauvoo. But the genius of the Church and of Joseph Smith is that the principle of consecration was not discredited by the termination of consecrated properties. The failure was blamed on the persecutors, not on the system itself. It remains as an ideal of sainthood, in fact a requirement, and Jackson County lives on in Mormon memory as the ideal embodiment of complete consecration. The speculations about a return to Jackson includes a realization that more sacrifice may yet be required of us. Tithing is only a down payment on consecrating everything. We still aspire to all that Jackson County represents.

I sometimes think that religion exists in the space between the ideal and the real. Religion arouses our aspirations for a higher life. It sets us to striving for a state beyond our present condition. God is our ideal in heaven, and for Mormons, the early Zion is our ideal for earth. If the early Saints had tried any longer to live the ideal, they might have become entirely disillusioned and cast Zion on the scrap heap of utopian failures. But the early expulsion coupled with Joseph’s compromises preserved the ideal. We still yearn for complete consecration while never realizing it. The earthly part of our religion functions in the force field between what we once hoped to achieve and what we have since become. Fox has turned our attention to a critical theme in the work of our first Prophet and in the course of Church history ever since.

4 comments for “RSR: The Politics and Personality of a Prophet

  1. Thanks for the fitting tribute and call to re-examine our relationship with Joseph Smith. In my home teaching message last night, I told my families that I don’t even know if I would be a Christian without the leadership and prophetic model of Joseph Smith and the sociality he helped establish in the LDS Church. Hail to the Prophet!

  2. Thanks Rob! Reading RSR was a really profound experience to me. Folks bat back and forth all the time ideas and arguments relating to the possibility of the church (or any church) being a people, a polis, a refuge and an alternative to the world–not just a handmaiden to modern life, providing advice and solace, but a real eschatological vision, a Zion. There’s all sorts of directions you can take that debate–civic religion, law, liberalism, social justice, economics, cultural identity, you name it. And, of course, you can even argue about whether such a vision is even desirable. Previous to reading RSR, I’d always kind of assumed that the parameters of this broad debate as it exists in Mormon circles was basically a result of Young’s (various and oftimes failed) attempts to live out Smith’s vision. (I think Bushman slightly misunderstands me here: I didn’t believe that “Joseph was the idealist, Brigham the pragmatist”; I believed that our whole peculiarly Mormon encounter with the tension between idealism and pragmatism came out of the Brigham era.) Now I see that, on a much smaller (but perhaps for all that more poignant) scale, Joseph went through the full gamut of romatic idealism and pragmatic compromise in his own short life as well. Of course, he handled it very different than Brigham did, because his personality was different and the context was different. I won’t even say he handled it as well as Brigham (and those who came after him) did: I think what Bushman shows us in the later Joseph is arguably part of the costs of trying to follow through on a vision of Zion without wanting to or being able to withdraw from the world in order to do so. But heaven knows he went through it all, and thus bequethed to us everything we need to struggle for the same standing before God he achieved. Hail to the prophet, indeed!

  3. Russell: Reading your review, it seemed like the the figerprints of Rousseau were all over your reading of Joseph and his approach to Church government. I would love to see you flesh this out a bit more some time. Good Anglo-American liberal that I am, I have always found the General Will more than a little frightening. However, reading your remarks made me realize that I may actually spend more of my life in a Rousseauian world than I had supposed.

    It seems to me that if we take Church government as an example of a Rousseuian General Will, then it matters a great deal whether we view it as a polity — a failed state or a failed nation — or as some sort of intermediate community embedded within a nation. Of course, one can negotiate the liberal fear of authority within a classical liberal framework by thinking of the religious community as being contractual. You make me think, however, that it might make sense to think about it as a sort of Rousseauian enclave within a liberal polity.

  4. Good thoughts, Nate. You’re right that there is more than a little Rousseau in my interpretation of what I see Bushman presenting insofar as the politics of Joseph’s vision is concerned. Not that I think the rule of “common consent” equals a perfect Rousseauian social contract, but that the terms his analysis of the social contract provides are helpful to understanding what I think Smith, at least originally, wanted to do, and what we still do today. Of course, Rousseau’s real provocation wasn’t just that he came up with a revolutionary challenge to the modern world; it’s that he used Calvinist and pietist models, as well as more respectable classical republican ones, to do so. That’s why I suggested that Bushman’s use of republicanism, while revealing in thinking about what Smith tried to put in place, could have benefited from an examination of Puritan town meetings, pietist conventicles, and other congregational and communitarian civic forms.

    As for the possibility of “Rousseauian enclaves” in a liberal world, there’s something to that. But pushing that reading of church government leads us back to issues of ethnicity, identity, and membership. These kind of romantic communities depend upon not just hierarchical representation (which is arguably what Smith decided to embrace towards the end of his life), but direct unanimous participation. In other words, they can never be too big, much less “universal”–only “general.” Ok, the basic unit is the ward or branch–so far, so good. But if Rousseau does help us understand what it means to live under the rule of common consent while also functioning within a liberal society, what is the effect of the proud claim that the rule of the church is, in fact, universal–the same everywhere, with the same Mormon culture and curricula and meetinghouses in Boise and Bangladesh? Maybe that isn’t a problem; maybe we’re talking about different modes of membership here. Then again, maybe it is a problem, one that our increasingly international church just can’t avoid addressing somewhere down the line.

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