By Ryan Stuart Bingham
Nearly forty years ago, Jan Shipps challenged Joseph Smith’s biographers to reconcile “the charlatan-true prophet dichotomy which has plagued Mormon history from the beginning.”1 While biographers have presented evidence with increasing rigor and have offered broader interpretations of Joseph Smith, the alternate distractions of devotion and incredulity have maintained the old interpretive barrier between believers and skeptics.
This is evident in the two most important biographies of Joseph Smith from the last decade: Dan Vogel’s skeptical Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2004) and Richard Bushman’s cultural biography Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005). While each of these biographies deserves its critical acclaim, neither one has bridged the gap between believer and skeptic, and neither one has the potential of doing so: their respective interpretive paradigms are not equipped to solve the “prophet puzzle.”
Vogel approaches Joseph Smith as a skeptic, ultimately unconvinced of Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims—or anything else supernatural. While Vogel’s resistance to supernatural claims is useful to his narrative in many cases, it is also sometimes problematic. Religions attempt to give form to the supernatural, which thrives most easily in the unknown. Thus, Mormonism’s most supernatural founding myths exist where we have the least empirical evidence. In his attempt to explain these myths naturally, Vogel must lean on some speculation. For example, he suggests the possibility of Joseph Smith’s manufacturing the “golden plates” out of tin. While we must acknowledge that this scenario is possible, it is not entirely useful or necessary to introduce such speculation into an otherwise evidence-based biography. In other words, Vogel’s atheistic skepticism, while useful in examining the development of Mormonism, keeps him from recognizing the possibility of the supernatural.
On the other hand, we have Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling. According to Bushman, his narrative “attempts to think as Smith thought and to reconstruct the beliefs of his followers as they understood them.”2 Bushman theorizes that the best way to “get inside the movement” is to “think of Smith as the early Mormons thought of him.”3 This interpretation, however, does not necessarily reveal who Joseph Smith was or what he actually experienced. Perhaps the most significant shortcoming of this approach is that it assumes that Joseph Smith was always capable of giving accurate accounts of transcendent experiences. In order to capture a Joseph Smith who may have communed with a God that was in any way transcendent, our narratives must accept the possibility that Joseph Smith did not always completely understand what he experienced. Ultimately, the decision to believe Joseph Smith’s descriptions of his own experiences requires Bushman’s narrative at times to ignore what ought to be obvious human elements.
In order to produce narratives that explore both human and divine possibility, we must be willing to explore both spheres within the same narrative: we need an agnostic approach.
By an agnostic approach, I mean an interpretation that explores both the strictures of empirical evidence and the possibilities of the supernatural. Such an approach is less concerned with discovering the ultimate reality of what happened—omniscience somehow evades historians—and more concerned with discovering the range of human and divine possibilities embodied in the history of Mormonism. We need narratives that allow for both money digging and divine manifestations, both communal ideals and consolidation of power. We need to explore Joseph Smith’s obvious humanity (in all of its manifestations) and his overwhelming heavens (in all of their manifestations). And we must be willing to encompass all of these possibilities within the same narratives.
While it is reasonable to view Mormonism as a purely human product, it is also possible to find God in Mormonism. And while it is reasonable to see Mormonism as a divine product, we must also be willing to explore all of the possible expressions of humanity within the tradition.
What we find within the interpretive gap of the “prophet puzzle” is a space in which we might choose to find God, and in which God is difficult to pin down. It is an agnostic space in which all interpreters approach the same evidence and recognize the interpretive spectrum that the evidence allows.
While I certainly do not expect an agnostic approach to solve all disagreements among students of Joseph Smith, I believe that it will lead to a more integrated portrait of Mormonism’s founder, creating tentative bridges across this unfortunate interpretive divide.
1. Jan Shipps, “The Prophet Puzzle: Suggestions Leading toward a More Comprehensive Interpretation of Joseph Smith,” Journal of Mormon History (1974): 3-20; rpt. in Bryan Waterman, ed., The Prophet Puzzle: Interpretive Essays on Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999), 25-47.
2. Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, xxii.
3. Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, xxi.