reviews – The Prophet Puzzle

Interpretive Essays on Joseph SmithJournal of Latter Day Saint History (Steven L. Shields, editor)
The significant role of Joseph Smith, Jr., in the continuing evolvement of Mormonism and Latter Day Saintism is brought to the forefront in this unique text. The influence of this nineteenth century religious leader certainly did not end in 1844 upon his death.

In this compilation of essays on the life and influence of Joseph Smith, Jr., differing perspectives are treated that all portray Joseph Smith as a unique personality that no one ever really got to know because of the shroud of secrecy and ambiguity that he established around himself.

Omissions and revisions recorded by the prophet himself in his ever evolving biography kept him at a distance from those who thought they really knew him. Fawn McKay Brodie even quoted Joseph Smith in the title of her book using these words: “No Man Knows My History.”

This volume points out in its various essays that Joseph Smith used this sense of ambiguity to his own advantage. It seems that he expected to arouse accusations of fraud by leaving out or by changing many details of his life story and doctrinal teachings. Documentation of this includes the multiple versions of his “first Vision” experience and his hesitancy to share much, if anything, on the translation of The Books of Mormon itself. This is very significant as this sacred scripture has and does play a significant role in the faith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It seems from these essays that Joseph Smith knowingly fostered this aura of ambiguity around himself which served to allow the development of his unique ritual and doctrine which included well known political and sexual peculiarities that incurred the ire and wrath of many ordinary citizens who often drove Joseph and his followers out of town—often with tar and feathers.

The writings in this volume are all essays which focus on this cloud of mystery around Joseph Smith. The use of varying disciplines such as psychology, history, theology, sociology, philosophy, and even literary studies. These selections encompass some thirty years of research and writing about Joseph Smith.

The collector’s purpose in compiling these writings is to relate that the interpretive process, just like Joseph Smith’s own retelling of his life story, is always ongoing, always incomplete, always historically bound.

In an interesting comment, Editor Bryan Waterman points out details about the painting of Joseph Smith, Jr., which is used on the cover of the book. This painting by Lane Twitchell’s series, “Twelve Famous Mormons (1997)” is a portrayal of Joseph Smith as if looking through television static. It is intentionally distorted to remind the readers of these essays that we as readers and historians view a world totally different from the one that Joseph Smith inhabited over a hundred years ago. We do not know Smith’s story any better, but we are better off for continually venturing new interpretations.

The essays in this volume represent, for the most part, established traditions of interpreting Joseph Smith. The writer of the second essay, Jan Shipps, emphasizes that the “mystery of Mormonism cannot be solved until we solve the mystery of Joseph Smith himself.”

Varying viewpoints include that of Shipps and Dan Vogel who write about Smith’s guessing game—his own cultivation of the prophet/fraud dichotomy.

Steven C. Walker and Richard S. Van Wagoner focus on the actual translation of The Book of Mormon—a process that Richard L. Bushman examines in terms of Smith’s own sense of personal identity.

The psychological perspectives are highlighted in the writings of Lawrence Foster, Robert D. Anderson, and Gary James Bergera.

The final three essays demonstrate a variety of relatively unexplored ways of looking at the world of Joseph Smith, Jr., which include Staker’s groundbreaking feminist reading in which textual criticism may be employed to gain insight into Joseph Smith’s world. This is a different perspective of treating Smith’s revelations as windows into his own mind.

Fifteen essays make up the volume, which include:

1. “The place of Joseph Smith in the Development of American Religion: A Historiographical Inquiry,” by Thomas G. Alexander.

2. “The Prophet Puzzle: Suggestions Leading Toward a More Comprehensive Interpretation of Joseph Smith,” by Jan Shipps.

3. “The Prophet Puzzle Revisited” by Dan Vogel.

4. “Joseph Smith as Translator,” by Richard L. Bushman.

5. “Joseph Smith: ‘The Gift of Serving'” by Richard S. Van Wagoner and Steven C. Walker.

6. “Joseph Smith, the Mormons, and Antebellum Reform—A Closer Look,” by Newell G. Bringhurst

7. “Rediscovering the Context of Joseph Smith’s Treasure Seeking,” by Alan Taylor.

8. “How Joseph Smith Resolved the Dilemmas of American Romanticism,” by Eugene England.

9. “The Psychology of Religious Genius: Joseph Smith and the origin of New Religious Movements,” by Lawrence Foster.

10. “Toward an Introduction to a Psychobiography of Joseph Smith,” by Robert D. Anderson.

11. “Joseph Smith and the Hazards of Charismatic Leadership,” by Gary James Bergera.

12. “Joseph Smith’s ‘Inspired Translation’ of Romans 7,” by Ronald V. Huggins.

13. “‘The Lord said, Thy Wife is a Very Fair Woman to Look upon'”: The Book of Abraham, Secrets, and Lying for the Lord,” by Susan Staker.

14. “Knowing Brother Joseph Again: The Book of Abraham and Joseph Smith as Translator,” by Karl C. Sandberg.

“Epilogue: The King Follett Discourse, Excerpts,” Joseph Smith.

This volume is a welcome addition to the library of any researcher focused on the life of the founding prophet of Mormonism. The topics and issues shared are those which have kept scholars busy in highlighting the significance of Joseph Smith, Jr., to the ongoing religious history not only of the Latter-day Saint World, but also to the culture of American Society itself.

John Whitmer Historical Journal, Edward A. Warner
The Mormon movement was never a simple or uncomplicated entity, and since so much of it was an outgrowth from reflection of the mind, life and development of the persona of Joseph Smith, Jr., it should come as no surprise to anyone that there is, and probably always will be a “prophet puzzle” to be analyzed and debated by those who still aspire to understand clearly and believably the nature of the man and the movement. Not only is there considerable complexity, texture, and ambiguity in the character of Smith, the editor and some of the contributors of this collection of articles acknowledge that at some points Smith allowed and even “knowingly fostered an aura of ambiguity around himself which helped create and sustain this legacy of enigma” (viii-ix). If hundreds and thousands of scholars are still arguing over the identity and self conception of a simple, illiterate, itinerant Jewish peasant who, after almost 2000 years, is blamed/credited for the existence of the world’s largest religion, how can we realistically expect that the complexity, intentionality (if singularly!), and contradictions in the Mormon prophet might have been satisfactorily solved/resolved in a century and a half?

In the editor’s brief but pointed introduction, Waterman quotes Jan Shipps’ now-popular admonition that the “mystery of Mormonism cannot be solved until we solve the mystery of Joseph Smith” (x). While no one in this volume claims to have resolved the “prophet puzzle” (that nomenclature is Shipps’), it is to the credit of the editor and each of these contributors that this single volume brings together under one cover a most valuable set of views that will comprise new grist for the mills of the grinding of new grain on this subject which will almost certainly bring to light a prompt investigation of even greater complexities and wrinkles in the character and face of the Mormon founder/prophet. This single volume will be an indispensable volume to bring new comers to the topic and problem up-to-speed in a relative hurry. All the interpreters have transcended—each in his or her own style—the old, simplistic dichotomy of either “fraud” or “prophet of God,” and most of them were carefully self-conscious and self-critical in their efforts to do so. It is and will continue to be a valuable, substantive contribution on the matter.

This fifteen chapter edited collation begins with the helpful historiographical essay by Thomas G. Alexander up to 1977, since it was previously published in 1978. This material is still solid, in spite of not being brought all the way to present, and Alexander provides a five-paragraph clue as to how he would move in the updating of the article. In chapters two and three, Jan Shipps and Dan Vogel, respectively, provide recent perceptions of the “prophet puzzle discussion.” (Those who attended the 1994 MHA meetings may recall the moving session in which Shipps and Vogel shared their differing positions at that time on this “puzzle.” They appeared to have moved a bit closer to each other in these two chapters.) Nine of the remaining twelve articles are all reprinted from prior publications. But chapters four, nine, and thirteen, by Richard L. Bushman, Eugene England, and Susan Staker, respectively, are new and published here for the first time. All of the chapters are ambitiously and generously backnoted for informative bibliographical support and information which make this a valuable and resourceful single-volume on the subject. The brief Epilogue to the volume is an excerpt of the “King Follett Discourse” which contains the now-famous quip from Smith that “no man knows my history” and which served as the title of the well-known earlier treatment of ex-communicant Fawn Brodie (352).

While it will and not, and indeed does not propose to, solve the vexing “prophet puzzle” in Mormon history, this helpful, modestly priced volume defines the basic parameter of that nineteenth-century indigenous American “enigma.” It will contribute to helping the inquiry to move along and make interpretive process in future Mormon scholarship.

Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Bradley D. Woodworth
What does it mean that Joseph Smith was “a seer, a translator, a prophet” (D&C 21:1)? This is the question addressed by the fifteen essays in this book, the eighth in Signature Books’s Essays on Mormonism series. Over a quarter of a century ago, non-Mormon historian Jan Shipps called upon her colleagues to work towards a solution of “the prophet puzzle”: to reconcile the money-digging young Joseph Smith with the mature prophet and man of God. In the article containing her challenge (reprinted here), Shipps suggested that this gap could be bridged by a greater understanding of what, in Joseph’s case, being a prophet, seer, and translator was all about. The essays printed here present responses to this challenge.

Mormon readers curious to know whether secular, professional scholarship on Joseph Smith is at all congruent with contemporary LDS orthodox thought might be surprised at the complex range of belief they find in this volume. Most of the essays will be familiar to students of Mormon history as all but three have been published before, primarily in Dialogue and the Journal of Mormon History.

Appearing here for the first time are articles by Richard L. Bushman, Eugene England, and Susan Staker. Bushman, who is working on a new biography of Joseph Smith, points in his essay to the centrality of unconventional, unlearned translation in Joseph’s understanding of his prophetic role. (This idea is central in the 1989 essay of Karl C. Sandberg, “Knowing Brother Joseph Again: The Book of Abraham and Joseph Smith as Translator,” reprinted in this volume.) The work of translating the Book of Mormon, Bushman writes, “joined two traditions—the holy calling of seer and the magical practice of divining with a stone.” Joseph Smith’s earlier experience with seerstones “helped [him] move step by step into his calling” (pp. 78-79).

Eugene England’s evocative, literary essay is the single openly devotional piece in the collection. England posits that Joseph Smith’s work and life present a synthesis, and thus a resolution, of the tension between Romantic utopian optimism and Classical realism. Joseph’s theology of salvation, England writes, “transcended the Classical rationalist extremes of both traditional high church Christianity and Enlightenment secularism and … also avoided the Romantic, emotionalistic, and voluntaristic extremes of Calvinism, Revivalism, and Transcendentalist pantheism” (p. 178).

In her finely crafted article, Susan Staker presents a corrective for the view that Mormon women in Nauvoo were given wide-ranging spiritual authority. The tools of both conventional historical inquiry and textual criticism are combined here in an impressive and important piece of scholarship. Staker’s point of departure is a passage from the story of Abraham and Sarai in the Book of Abraham, translated and published by Joseph Smith in 1842 (Abraham 2:22-25), which Staker argues is a “narrative about lying for the Lord.” Just as God tells Abraham to lie about his marriage to Sarai, so in Nauvoo, marriage became the center of a “culture of secrecy.” Staker concludes that ecclesiastic innovations introduced there did not empower women, but rather, through enforced secrecy, silenced and controlled them “within a hierarchy of male privilege and power” (p. 290).

The strongest essays in the book are made so because they acknowledge the complexity of Joseph Smith and his roles and view the prophet within his own cultural and historical context. The several contributions which are attempts at psychobiography (and which are unsympathetic to the prophet) are the volume’s weak spots. The argument that Joseph Smith suffered from mental illness or instability is unprovable and, in the context, reductive.

The introduction by editor Bryan Waterman fronting the collection addresses ambiguity in the life of Joseph Smith and draws attention to a number of recent book-length studies that have made significant contributions to the understanding of the prophet and his era, including works by D. Michael Quinn, Nathan O. Hatch, Harold Bloom, and John L. Brooke. While these works are not represented in this volume, their arguments are outlined and discussed by a number of contributors.

Waterman also provides a relevant reading of the portrait of Joseph Smith on the book’s cover, a recent painting by New York artist Lane Twitchell. Here we see Joseph as on an old television screen; he appears familiar and yet obscured by static and bad reception. Waterman’s conclusion is apropos of both Twitchell’s portrait and research on the life of Joseph Smith: though our picture of the prophet remains filtered by our greater or lesser ability to understand his world, this should not stop us from striving for greater clarity.

Journal of the West, Roger C. Launius
Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, was one of the most significant religious leaders of the 19th 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 the subject of considerable investigation by many. This book collects some of the more thoughtful recent explorations of this theme. The 15 essays include several previously published in journals, along with three that appear here for the first time.

This collection is a welcome addition to the literature on the Mormon prophet—not for its exhaustive consideration nor for the insights offered, but because it brings together 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, as are outstanding non-Mormon scholars such as Alan Taylor and Lawrence Foster.