Sunday, May 9, 2010

Questioning the Prophet

Richard Lyman Bushman.  Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.  New York: Knopf, 2005.  ISBN 1400042704.  

Todd Compton.  In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith.  Salt Lake City: Signature, 1997.  ISBN 156085085X.

Will Bagley.  Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.  ISBN 0806134267.

I encountered these three books in the order I have listed them here: first Bushman's, then Compton's, then Bagley's.  They have profoundly impacted my view of LDS church history.  The picture of the pioneer church that they paint individually and cumulatively is much more vivid and real than anything in the church manuals.  Unfortunately, it is also much more disturbing if (like me) you grew up accepting the maudlin stuff in the manuals as an essential part of your faith.  In the next three posts, I will discuss my reaction to each book; this essay will deal with Bushman.

My hunger to know more about church history goes back at least to the mission field, where I distinctly remember questioning my church-manual testimony of the prophet Joseph for the first time.  While I had read Hugh Nibley's apologetic screeds (especially the hilarious Myth Makers) thoroughly enough to get a basic sense of the controversies surrounding the origins of Mormonism, I had not made any detailed study of church history and was largely uninformed.  I was with a fellow missionary en route to a special zone leaders' conference in Leon, on the other side of some really impressive mountains in northern Spain.  We wiled away a good bit of the drive (with him at the wheel, since I did not have a viable driver's license) by listening to a series of lectures on the Prophet Joseph by the late Truman Madsen, who was still alive back then.  Gazing out over the wild Spanish countryside (so beautiful and so empty of humanity), I listened to Madsen narrate the official story of Joseph, loading the prophet with every virtue known to man in the superlative degree, and found myself wondering, against my will even, whether it was all empty words.  Did Joseph really see God in the flesh, live a practically perfect life (committing only a few sins that most people could not care less about, like letting Martin Harris keep some pages of the first Book of Mormon manuscript overnight), and then die a martyr?  I wondered, and I had no immediate answer.  I resolved that I would look into the matter when I got back.

Fast forward several months, and I am sitting around the table with a lot of older undergraduates (returned missionaries like myself) listening to a professor mention Richard Bushman's biography of Joseph Smith with approval.  I am interested.  Then the book appears at my parents' house, at my fiancee's house.  Pretty soon, I have read it. In some ways, it is much more satisfying than Madsen's portrait; in other ways, it is profoundly more troubling.  Madsen's Joseph is the church-manual prophet: a perfect gentleman who embodies an exact contrast to the kind of loose morals that are often associated with frontier America in the nineteenth century.  Madsen's Joseph is a kind, gentle soul, but a lusty wrestler and no stranger to hard work; he talks to Jesus and plays with children before being hauled off to court on trumped-up charges to face a band of illegal executioners instead of a lawful trial.  Bushman's Joseph, on the other hand, is a lot less immediately prepossessing: he drinks, fights, and has this thing for women (including other men's wives: polyandry was a much greater shock to me than polygyny, which I already knew something about thanks to Nibley).  On top of that, his revelations are a lot less "inspired" (than that of his official counterpart) when considered from a purely practical point of view: many (some would say most) of the ventures he launches in the name of God (the United Order, Zion's Camp, Kirtland Safety Society, the Nauvoo Legion, the New and Everlasting Covenant) fail with ambiguous moral consequences for those involved.  (Did losing all their property in the Kirtland Safety Society prepare people to be righteous leaders, the way failing to save the church's property with Zion's Camp did?  Did Emma's endurance of what she perceived as her husband's ongoing infidelity provide a necessary test of character, or was he just a cad?)  Finally, instead of delivering himself up as an innocent lamb to the slaughter, Bushman's Joseph dies in a gun fight brought on as much by his own antisocial posturing as that of his enemies, reminding me more of Billy the Kid than Father Imbert (who made no active effort to defend himself: I freely admit I would probably go down shooting, much like Joseph).  The "martyrdom" of the Prophet is a really morally ambiguous event for me in the wake of reading Bushman.  How would you react if local law enforcement were erratic and someone showed up threatening to take over your county for God and his chosen people?  My thinking is that many of us, myself included, might have acted just like some of the "mobocrats" in Missouri and Illinois, who responded by taking the law into their own hands.  Joseph Smith himself was not above such behavior: witness his destruction of the Expositor press in Nauvoo.  The fact of the matter is that the American frontier was a savage place in the nineteenth century: rule of law was weak enough to accommodate the destruction of an annoying printing press or the execution of a notorious criminal.  In the absence of strong military and police forces, the only thing that separated crimes from acts of civic heroism was courtroom rhetoric, which either side could command at will. 

Bushman makes an effort to contain his problematic prophet, pointing out that Mormons have never been told their prophet is perfect.  (For more from Bushman in this vein, listen to his interview with John Dehlin.)  This defense does not sit well with me, largely because I see it belied in the educational effort that the church puts forth: in the mission field, we did not warn investigators that prophets might occasionally go off the deep end (trying to cheat people of their property or take advantage of their wives, activities just as illegal in the nineteenth century as in the twenty-first); we told them to pray, and that if they prayed with real intent they would know that following the prophet is always the right thing to do.  When a modern prophet remarks that "one modest pair of earrings is sufficient" (Gordon B. Hinckley, "A Prophet's Counsel and Prayer for Youth," Ensign, January 2001), the righteous are supposed to interpret this as a test of their obedience: a virtuous woman will doff her excess ornaments, demonstrating her ability "to promptly and quietly obey the counsel of the prophet in all things and at all times" (quoted from current LDS apostle David Bednar, "Quick to Observe," BYU Devotional, 10 May 2005).  What kind of behavior does such rhetoric train if not unquestioning, fanatical obedience? Where is the place for personal revelation (on the part of the individual church member) and prophetic fallibility here?  I do not see it.


  1. I am often troubled at accounts I hear of personal revelation being devalued when it is contrary to the opinions of church leaders: turning down a calling is practically a sin, regardless of the reasons motivating the refusal, and woe betide anyone who doesn't toe the party line on gay marriage.

    I find myself wondering how much more practical and sincere the average Mormon's testimony would be if the church stopped pushing the idea that leaders, past and present, were perfect. If Mormons were more generally able to separate gospel principles such as faith, hope, and charity (not to mention the importance of personal revelation) from ubiquitous rules (such as praying, reading scriptures, and going to church) (not that those are bad things, but strict adherence to them doth not a righteous member make) and idealized rhetoric (such as the idea that the prophet would die on the spot if he so much as thought anything that God himself wouldn't think), then I think far more people would genuinely "know" the truth behind what they practiced. Church lesson manuals don't give members nearly enough credit. I don't have to think that JS was a saint to recognize the good that being a member has done for me.

    But maybe that's just me and my apostate distaste for "church correlation." (Good thing I'm not the prophet: I'd have been struck dead by lightning for having typed that last bit for sure!)

    Sorry: too off-topic?

  2. You seem right on topic to me. All I have to say after reading your comment is "Amen."

  3. Dear Joseph,
    In the previous posts, you have mentioned two points. In my own way, I'd like to address them:

    1. Joseph Smith

    My testimony of Joseph Smith is not that he was a perfect man. My testimony of him is that God ordained him to be a prophet. And if his heart was pure enough for God, then I will accept him as a leader and a revelator for the Church (in his day). May God strike any prophet of this Church who leads His children with an intent of pure, deceitful evil and greed. Jesus Christ, not Joseph Smith, is the figure head of our Church.
    I believe that no history, positive or negative, can declare exactly what kind of a man Joseph Smith was. The differing views and controversies around his character are diverse, extreme and misleading. However, this much I know: he was a prophet; and God will repay him for his good and bad intents. He did his work on Earth and translated the Book of Mormon; and so, for that alone, I will be eternally grateful to him.

    2. Rituals verses Ordinances
    Any task can become a ritual if there is no faith, hope or desire for God. (See Matthew 15:8) Kirsti illustrated this in her comment above :). However, to conclude that the ritual in and of itself is empty, simply because the soul of the performer is empty, is blasphemy. I find it very arrogant of you to assume that every person who speaks from the pulpit is a puppet, parroting the words of the "mastermind", simply because you have never felt or experienced (or cannot remember) a time that you had unrelenting conviction that this doctrine was true. Joseph, to understand mens' intents you must look beyond their outward appearance and actions. You must look into YOUR heart and why you seek to judge them; and then, only then, can you glimpse why men appear the way they do.

    I hate to preach at you, Joseph. I know you have gifts in writing, language and philsophy that I will probably never master; and I do not want to condemn you in your articulate, well-phrased words. To me, it is uncomprehendable how you can live each day without a personal God to comfort and strengthen you; it makes me fear that a time of adversity will destroy you to a point where none but He can reach you. It is unfathomable to me that you could believe that family is an unneccessary and selfish state, especially when you have been blessed with such a beautiful, healthy one. And that you could think of me, or any other human, as an unneccessary addition to the human race: a waste of valuable air and resources is too heart-breaking to comprehend.

    I love you Joseph and I know that you are special. There is nothing you can do that will make me stop caring about you. I want you and your family to be happy; and so I think you should take a closer look at what you DO live for.

  4. @Sally Pie: Thanks for your comments! I don't think anything I have written here can be construed to argue that you (or anyone: I am even willing to include Joseph Smith) are an unnecessary part of the human race. Are you getting this from somewhere else? Don't take anything I say in the excitement of the moment on the phone as an excuse to make me more of a misanthrope than I really am. My concern for the present is making the best use of all the resources we have (as humans) to make life as productive and happy for as many of us as possible (ideally that means "all of us"--it certainly includes you, and my immediate family here in Durham).

    Regarding (1) Joseph Smith, I think there is enough good information about his character to form an opinion of it that is balanced (seeing the good, the bad, and the indifferent). I wish the church were more forthcoming about all the stuff we actually know about him, since he (and his character, including the ugly bits) is an important part of our own collective and individual identities.

    Regarding (2) rituals/ordinances, I have to plead guilty to the charge of blasphemy. I am as guilty as Christ, who pointed out to the scribes and Pharisees that their strict obedience was morally empty. As long as you do things merely to please others, or to please yourself, without looking at the consequences carefully, you are being irresponsible and running the risk of hurting someone. This is true whether the behaviors you copy are those of a government, a church, or a family member. The idea that there is an objective law of God that should be applied via physical force (as in the OT and the NT) or manipulation of shame and guilt (as too often in the church) is poisonous, in my mind, to real righteousness. Instead of worrying about what your neighbor is doing (how many earrings she is wearing, how much sex she is having and what kind, how many drinks she takes, how much money she makes, etc.), you should work on making your own life as beautiful, meaningful, and useful as possible. Nothing anyone else does can mar the real beauty of your life. You should not be afraid of "the world," of Satan, of your friends ("peer pressure"), of God, or any of the various bogeymen we create in the church (and outside it): they are not powerful unless you make them so. Some argue that fearing them makes you a more moral person; my experience teaches me otherwise.

    That was long! Welcome to the blog. I hope to see you more on it (but I'm not holding my breath: I can understand that it may be rather hard for you to read some of it; it is not always easy for me to write it, either, but it does help ease some of the pain of my "de-conversion").

  5. P.S. I never said everyone who bears testimony in church is acting as a puppet. But I know from experience that most of them are basing their understanding on incomplete information (a false portrait of Joseph Smith). I am complicit in propagating this info, and I do feel guilty for my role in encouraging people to mistake "feeling good" about the fake Joseph Smith with being good in the real world.

  6. I actual prefer empty rituals to their more sincerely performed versions (as I use to say, "I am not spiritual; I'm religious"). There is, for example, something beautiful about the rhythmic and synchronized prayers in a mosque, though in my own experience as a participant, most of the men praying (I've never watched women do it: a sin!) are there because they're expected to be. And most would rush through it if they could. One small evidence of this is the astonishing speed at which these men at prayer transform into the most lascivious commentators on women's appearances once they've left the mosque. And many, especially in the non-Arab world, haven't the slightest clue what they're saying (though I think this is also true when many Mormons say that they "know the church is true"). Testimonies on Fast Sunday are probably a lot more sincere--they are designed to be--because a lone individual speaking, even if in formulas and cliche (how much language is NOT one of these?), but aesthetically they leave much to be desired (oh damn that formulaic tendency of language, this imperfect prison). Do you think it would make much difference if, e.g., Pashto speakers *know* they're asking for a blessing on Abraham at the end of the prayer, and sincerely hope that said blessing is successfully bestowed? Will they then accept the American dream in Afghanistan? And what a dreadful world it will be when we can't come together, as if in a holy circle, to gossip about our slutty neighbors. It's a ritual, and it only becomes dangerous when we start to mean it TOO MUCH...when we pour in sincerity. Jesus is so terrifying because he wants to control thought ("you mean I can't even THINK about her?" It seems the nobler thing for a married man (or woman), to me anyway, to lust after another woman and *not* sleep with her; what good's all that fidelity if the promise ain't tested? Like a car that never leaves the driveway, it's useless.) and because we must be sincere all the time. I will take Pharisaic hypocrites any day over him. Play actors all know they're in a play, but Jesus seems to think it's all real. Sincerity makes this play a real thing. The terrifying thing about Mormonism (and really Christianity in general) is that it *insists* on this sincerity all the time. "As long as you do things merely to please others, or to please yourself, without looking at the consequences carefully, you are being irresponsible and running the risk of hurting someone..." This sounds like it could easily be said in General Conference. It's true, of course (as we see from Eichmann in Jerusalem and countless other examples), but it is not true all the time, because it leaves no room of the essential recognition that this whole thing is not as real as it other words, it leaves no room for the saving grace of hypocrisy.

  7. Anonymous, I too am much more at home with "empty ritual" than your sincerity. If we try to make the meaning of a ritual stay put (define one constant thing for everyone), we seem always to end up impoverishing it (by denying someone else's uncorrelated experience as heretical) at best, and at worst, turning it into a weapon we can use against other people (by persecuting them for finding meaning that we refuse to recognize). The distinction you make between honest hypocrisy and dishonest prudishness is an important one that many fundamentalist/literalist types just don't see. I know I spent a lot of time stumbling over it in the dark before the light of apostasy finally caused things to come clear.

  8. I sincerely appreciate your voice on this subject Joseph. I have read two of the books you mentioned here and sincerely tried to understand the real picture myself. It was mentioned that we cannot ever really know what Joseph Smith was really like because there is both good and bod to be said of him.

    For some reason I hear this conclusion drawn a lot when the more difficult facts about Joseph are put on the table. Typically the person saying this means that they are already aware of a multitude of good things and have perhaps heard that there are many disturbing bad things that exist but they do not care to analyze them because nothing NOTHING could shake what they already know. But the idea of knowing something (as in being told an answer without understanding the formula, like cheating on a test) is not up for reevaluation. What, I ask, would it really mean if you didn't know? Would your world fall apart? Why does God expect you to take a stance on whether or not something miraculous happened to someone in the veiled past exactly the way that a body of followers now proclaim hundreds of years later?

    In any other discipline a hardened conclusion about something and a refusal to recognize new information will not serve you well. I don't think God would ever expect us to hold to something unquestionably. If there is anything the story of Joseph Smith taught us it is that God wants us to be skeptical and base our convictions on solid experience and observation.

    There are too many things to say on this but I feel it is important to point out that it is awfully easy to know exactly what other people need to do when we do not allow ourselves the intellectual freedom to evaluate the same information that they are wrestling with. It is not arrogant to state that someone who is totally unfamiliar with the facts surrounding Joseph Smith's life is not exactly qualified to cast judgment about someone else who has come to a different conclusion about his character.

    If we respond to this post with defensiveness what, I wonder, would we be defending other than the satisfaction of being right about something? So Blog poster Joseph decides to not be a polygamist and to not judge polygamists or homosexuals......... Where is the threat exactly? Will his commitment to be honest with his wife (something Joseph Smith did not have) bring suffering upon him or his family or just increased obligation to be true to his words? I do not know Joseph personally but I think he must be a good guy because he seems to really care about understanding the most responsible paths to take in life. It would be arguably easier for him to leave these issues alone but clearly he senses something inside him (the spirit) that inspires him to re-evaluate his beliefs. This seems like everything a loving God would want from us. I personally feel that God wants us to understand ( a prerequisite for actually "knowing" something).

    I say withhold judgment until God actually DOES destroy his family with fire from heaven... :)

    Thought provoking read! Thanks.