A Joseph Smith Too Small

barlow2 Philip L. Barlow is Leonard J. Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University. Earlier this year, Oxford University Press published an updated version of his classic book, Mormons and the Bible. The following excerpt is from its new preface.

IN RECENT YEARS I have come to judge [Joseph Smith’s] project as dramatically more expansive than I formerly comprehended, despite the familiar elements of many of its individual components. This is to say: the Joseph Smith we carry about in our heads is too small. . . .

Joseph Smith’s religion (religio: to bind together), . . . his extravagant doctrines, policies, priesthoods, keys, revelations, ordinances, and actions were not ends in themselves. They were ultimately in service to “restoring” proper relations and order in time and eternity. The relations and order that Smith saw as needing restoration, moreover, amount to something larger and more surprising than we have surmised. . . . That jaw-dropping scope exceeds Smith’s commonly understood attempt to restore the primitive Christian church. It exceeds also his effort to combine this church with the restored, literal kingdom of Israel. It goes beyond and gives meaning to the Mormon Prophet’s alleged restoration of correct doctrine, spiritual gifts, prophetic knowledge, ancient authority, and additional scripture and ritual.

Beyond all this, we can deduce from the Mormon Prophet’s pronouncements, revelations, and actions that Smith’s intent was to restore to wholeness a fractured reality. . . . For him, the proper organization of things was out of joint; conceptual and practical order itself was broken and needed restoration. His diagnosis of his era’s situation agreed with, but went much farther than, Emerson’s “age of severance” describing New England in the 1820s and 1830s].

Smith saw, for instance, a chasm in traditional Christianity’s perception of the relation of the spiritual to the temporal and of the spiritual to the physical—chasms he worked to bridge. His efforts included the healing of fractured “time,” of broken language, and of earth’s sundered geology. Like Alexis de Tocqueville, the brilliant observer of the new American democracy who published in French just as Smith entered the height of his career, Smith diagnosed a breach in the meaning and nature of “family” and generational memory and attachments, rapidly being replaced (as Tocqueville said) by a growing, isolating, and amnesiac individualism.

Yet Smith went ever further, finding broken or incomplete virtually every essential dimension of how humans related to one another: their rudderless sectarian religion, their baseless sources of authority, their social classes which no longer cohered, and their politics and economies. He made bold assertions about how people may know what they know, what they in essence are, their connection to God, their means and understanding of “salvation,” and their entrapment by the great barrier of death. It was not merely that the Prophet inhabited a time of “rapid social change” and consequent “social dislocation,” which various historians have used to explain the Smith phenomenon. It was rather that the universe of relations and conceptions itself was splintered, which included but cannot be reduced to social dislocation. All of this required repair, and the worldly philosophers and sectarian preachers, Smith thought, could not put Humpty-Dumpty together again. The prophet aspired to mend a fractured reality.

Smith’s urge to mend fractures is likely related to another of his traits, widely noted, if often misconstrued or unexplained: his alleged tendency to draw from elements around him so thoroughly as to be a cultural sponge. . . . That Mormonism’s rise was enabled by its time and place is hardly contestable, but the temptation to reduce the movement to its setting should be resisted. Joseph Smith did not merely plagiarize and borrow from his surroundings in the ordinary sense. Instead he was moved to respond creatively to his environment; the result was something new. . . . If his brushstrokes and imagery are sometimes crude, then it is an evocative crudity like that of a painting by van Gogh.


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