Joseph Smith: Prophet, Revelator, Human

As Mormons celebrate the bicentennial of their church's founder, a new biography explores his achievements--and shortcomings.

BY: Interview by Michael Kress


Continued from page 1

In the book, you explore Joseph Smith's religious philosophy, which is often ignored in discussions about him. What was that religious philosophy?

It's a very complex theology that he propounds. Part of it has to do with practice: He restores priesthood hierarchy and ritual to a degree that was quite unusual in the radical Protestantism that was his immediate environment. Universalists and Baptists certainly didn't think we needed more priesthood or more authority. No one, as far as I know, in the religious world around him is working on temples and temple rituals, and yet Joseph Smith embodies both of these, which are more Roman Catholic in flavor than they are Protestant. So that gives Mormonism a strange look on the American scene.

And then he has this notion of a God who is not as distant or remote as the standard Calvinist God of his time, but a God who is truly a father and instructor who has taken upon himself the responsibility of bringing as many human souls into covenant with him, with the purpose of teaching them to become like him, to receive a fullness of godly powers. And that is different from the idea of a Fall, which creates an impassible gulf and people struggle to cross that gulf. That gives a cast to the Mormon religion generally that it does feel a closeness to God, in a sense of Him as an ally instead of Him as an imposing force.

Hierarchy and feeling close to God are often seen as antithetical.

The idea of God is that He is your friend, and strangely, that carries over into the idea of hierarchy. Your bishop is your friend, and it instills hierarchy with an approachable quality to it. Most Americans are suspicious of power in any form, but Mormons love having a prophet who has the powers of God in him, because they think of God in this very friendly way.

How does the image of Joseph Smith in your book challenge the traditional image of Smith among believers?

There's an understandable tendency to idealize Joseph Smith, to make him a model of behavior and a paragon of supreme virtues. And we think of him also as a man who was totally in God's confidence, who knew all that was happening and was following a well-designed plan. And I alter that highly idealistic picture of Joseph and show him as a person who struggled, who was given commissions by God--to build a city or build a temple--which were extraordinarily difficult to fulfill. He sometimes worried that he couldn't pull it off. And at the same time, he had to struggle with his own human qualities: his melancholy, his impatience. Sometimes his temper snapped, and he rebuked people fairly harshly. So I am trying to show a Joseph Smith who was a rough stone, but to my own taste, a very appealing figure because of his flaws and his struggles. I personally think we're more attracted to a prophet who is more like ourselves, who has struggles.

What would Smith have said if he could see the Church today?

He's an expansive mind, and I think he always had grand ambitions for the Church. He is immediately sending missionaries all over the globe, thinking he will gather followers in every corner of the earth. And the fact that the Church has expanded globally would be very satisfying to him. I think he would love to see all these temples going up; they were so important in his thinking.

I don't know what he would say about our fears of culture. Like lots of religious people, we sense dangers in the secularism and the immorality of modern culture. Whether he would have joined us in condemning the way the world is going to pot, as it looks to so many people, or whether he would have been more ebullient and embracing it--his natural tendency was to embrace. You can argue on either side of his reaction to the modern world.

Relations between Mormons and evangelical Christians have always been strained, but lately there have been signs of a warming. Where does this relationship stand, in your opinion?

At the points of contact between serious Mormon thinkers and serious evangelical thinkers, where they enter into protracted dialogue, there's been a rapprochement, a development of respect on both sides and a recognition of broad, common areas of agreement in the notion of grace and Christ as a redeemer. I think it's had a positive effect in making Mormons more aware of elements in their doctrine that might not have received the attention they deserved.

On the other hand, there are a lot of evangelicals who still cannot stomach Joseph Smith. They do not like to have a rival Bible like the Book of Mormon, and they think our ideas of this friendly God demean God, bring Him down, don't make him glorious enough. So there will be continued disagreement. But I think it's an excellent example of how extensive religious dialogue can not only reduce ill feelings but can instruct people on both sides of a religious divide.

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