A unique American ‘prophet’

NEW YORK – To loyal Mormons, Joseph Smith Jr. was an American prophet whose creed is preparing for Christ’s Second Coming. To skeptics, he was a reprobate impostor – if a remarkably successful one.

Now as Smith’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prepares to celebrate the bicentennial year of his birth (Dec. 23, 1805), the occasion will certainly renew debates over one of America’s most important – and wooliest -religious careers.

The oft-persecuted Smith was hounded out of New York, Ohio and Missouri, tarred and feathered, jailed and accused of serious crimes. He repeatedly alienated close associates.

In Illinois, he ruled a theocratic city-state as prophet, mayor, chief judge and commander of a 5,000-man militia. In 1844, he was secretly anointed an earthly king while campaigning for the U.S. presidency. When Smith had officers pillage an opposition newspaper, he was arrested, then murdered by a mob.

Smith’s prophethood was founded upon his report that, in 1827, an angel gave him golden plates inscribed in an unknown language and buried near Palmyra, New York. The plates told the history of Indians’ ancient ancestors, who had migrated from Israel and were visited by Jesus. Smith said God miraculously empowered him to understand the language and dictate the Book of Mormon, after which the angel retrieved the plates.

Employing similar means, Smith revised – and in his view corrected – large sections of the Bible. He also produced writings attributed to biblical Abraham and 134 revelations of his own as latter-day scripture.

Both Mormons and non-Mormons still argue over Smith’s authenticity.

Just last Sunday, a church tribunal in Utah disfellowshipped Grant Palmer, a retired teacher and executive for classes the church provides to high school and college students, because his ‘An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins’ says evidence for Smith’s claims is ‘either nonexistent or problematic.’

Palmer’s publisher, Signature Books, marked the bicentennial with Dan Vogel’s equally skeptical ‘Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet,’ which contends that Smith wrote the Book of Mormon from his imagination and life experiences.

Church bicentennial doings include an authorized Book of Mormon publication by secular Doubleday though last year’s University of Illinois Press ‘reader’s edition’ is more useful for non-Mormons.

Other upcoming events: a Library of Congress symposium; volume one in the vast ‘Joseph Smith Papers’ series; and a new Smith film for visitors to the church’s Salt Lake City headquarters.

The landmark, however, will be Richard Bushman’s biography ‘Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling,’ due next October. Bushman, an emeritus professor at Columbia University, is the leading historian of America among devout Mormons.

Bushman observed in an interview that the hostility Smith suffered in his lifetime is hardly surprising, given that his theological views were alien, even abhorrent, to most Christians.

For example, Smith’s position on God the Father ‘is incredibly heretical’ by orthodox Christian standards, Bushman said.

Smith said that matter is eternal so ‘God is the master of the universe, not the creator,’ Bushman explained, and humans ‘are all gods in embryo.’ Smith also taught that God was not always God but ‘was once as we are now, and is an exalted man.’

Mormons ‘are just driven to continually exalt’ Smith, Bushman said. ‘What I say will run against this idealized version.’

Another major controversy is Smith’s practice of polygamy, which the church abandoned under federal government pressure in 1890. Bushman thinks Smith felt that God commanded polygamy but needed to hide his involvement in the practice because he knew it was illegal. But Bushman finds it unsettling that 10 of Smith’s 28 or so wives were already married to other men.

The biography also treats the now-established fact that, before he reported unearthing the golden tablets, Smith was active in searches for buried treasure by gazing into so-called magic peep stones. Jan Shipps, a non-Mormon historian, said Smith’s critics argue that ‘he couldn’t be a prophet because he was a money-digger,’ but maybe there’s no contradiction and ‘he began somehow to search for treasure of much greater value.’

Another perennial issue is whether Smith’s unconventional creed is Christian, particularly since he said God regarded teachings of all other churches as ‘an abomination.’ Shipps, emeritus professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, terms Mormonism a ‘new religious tradition’ that emerged from Christianity, like Christianity did from Judaism.

Shipps said that 19th-century America had many prophets claiming to speak for God but the ‘absolutely critical’ factor that set Smith apart was that so many believed in his reconstitution of priesthood authority, primitive Christianity and, literally, the people of Israel.

Another non-Mormon historian, University of Notre Dame Provost Nathan Hatch, said Smith’s rise also stemmed from the fact that he was a charismatic preacher who appeared just as many Americans were rejecting Europe’s established churches and seeking new spiritual options and as President Andrew Jackson was personifying the rise of the roughhewn common man.

Plus, Smith was an ‘organizational genius,’ Hatch says.

Though Mormons often stress Smith’s singularity, scholars increasingly recognize that he was ‘connected in a savvy and uncanny way to the religious and cultural trends’ of his era, said Mormon historian Grant Underwood of Brigham Young University. ‘He was marvelously in tune with the temper of the times’ and ‘striking a very popular chord’ by seeking Christianity’s original form.

With Smith, Underwood said, ‘the grand dramas one reads about in the Bible were not a thing of the past and not just reserved for an elite, but the average American could lay hold on such miraculous experiences.’

Whatever the reasons, Smith has had an undeniable impact.

A church that started with a handful of disciples in 1830 has grown into America’s fifth largest denomination. It has a total of 12 million adherents worldwide.

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