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Joseph Smith and His Papers: An Introduction

Joseph Smith’s Place in History

From the viewpoint of the present, what is the significance of this charismatic and forceful man? His claims to direct revelation put him too far beyond the pale of conventional Christianity to be taken seriously while he was alive; outside of Latter-day Saint circles, he is scarcely studied as a thinker or a theologian to this day. But he aimed a question at the heart of the culture: Do Christians believe in revelation? If believers in the Bible dismissed revelation in the present, could they defend revelation in the past? By 1830, when Smith came on the religious scene, revelation had been debated in Anglo-American culture for well over a century. Since the first years of the eighteenth century, rational Christians had struggled with deists, skeptics, and infidels over the veracity of miracles and the inspiration of prophets and apostles. In 1829, Alexander Campbell debated the atheist Robert Owen for a full week on the value of religion and the truth of the Bible.50 Campbell believed he had proven God’s presence in the Bible, but doubt lingered on. Over the course of the nineteenth century, belief in revelation eroded among the educated classes, reflecting the notorious disenchantment of the world. At first the loss of confidence in revelation was only dimly perceived by everyday Christians, but in the century to come, the issue divided divinity schools and disturbed ordinary people.

Joseph Smith stood against that rising tide. He received revelation exactly as Christians thought biblical prophets had done. In effect, he reenacted the writing of the Bible before the world’s eyes.51 Most put him aside as an obvious charlatan without bothering to evaluate his doctrine. After one incredulous visitor marveled that the Mormon prophet was “nothing but a man,” Smith remarked that “they look upon it as incredible that a man should have any intercourse with his Maker.”52 Smith’s historical role, as he understood it, was to give God a voice in a world that had stopped listening.53 Smith stood on the contested ground between the Enlightenment and Christianity. At a time when the foundations of Christianity were under assault by Enlightenment rationality, he turned Christian faith back toward its origins in revelation.

Mormonism could be categorized as another rearguard action against advancing modernity had not Smith complicated the picture. In the political realm, for example, he thought of himself as democratic. He composed a “motto” for the church that proclaimed: “Exalt the standard of Democracy.”54 He honored the right to free worship: “It is one of the first principles of my life. & one that I have cultivated from my childhood. having been taught it of my father[s], to allow every one the liberty of conscience.”55 One of the first ordinances passed under the Nauvoo charter granted freedom of worship to every denomination, including Roman Catholicism and Islam.56

He was, moreover, no enemy of learning. An early revelation explained that “truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come,” and his followers were urged to seek that kind of truth. They were to “obtain a knowledge of history, and of countries, and of kingdoms, of laws of God and man, and all this for the salvation of Zion.”57 A revelation commanded them to open a school, where, among other things, the students studied grammar as well as theology. In that same spirit, they established a school at which the students studied Hebrew under the tutelage of a Jewish instructor. “Teach one another,” they were enjoined, “words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom: seek learning even by study, and also by faith.”58 The Nauvoo City Council moved to establish a university soon after the charter was granted.

Godly knowledge, to be sure, outranked secular learning in Smith’s thinking, but revelation was not set in opposition to reason. “The glory of God is intelligence,” one revelation declared, “or, in other words, light and truth.”59 Among his many superlative qualities, God was the most intelligent of all beings.60 Church members were told to seek knowledge as part of their salvation. “If a person gains more knowledge in this life through his diligence & obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.”61

Combining a set of apparently conflicting impulses, Smith left a complex legacy for his people. His revelations sustained a literal belief in scriptural inspiration yet promoted learning and knowledge as if religion and the Enlightenment were compatible. He never wavered in his belief that God had spoken to him but made it an article of faith to let all men “worship how, where, or what they may.”62 While reviving traditional Christian faith, he was equally a prophet of the coming age.

In the fourteen years he led the church, Joseph Smith created a religion and a culture that incorporated these paradoxes into its core beliefs. After his death, Mormons withdrew from the United States to a refuge in the Great Basin, where for a half century they nurtured their faith in relative isolation. Never, however, did they cut themselves off from the world. During this period of consolidation, they carried on a worldwide missionary program that brought tens of thousands of converts to Utah. Although removed from the nation’s cultural centers, they founded universities, sent people east for schooling, opened theaters, and gave women the vote, all the while believing that God had revealed himself to their prophet.

Faith in revelation persists to this day among Latter-day Saints. It energizes the church now as it powered Joseph Smith’s ascent from obscurity to eminence in the first half of the nineteenth century. The same force that enabled him to build cities and gather thousands of converts motivates ordinary church members today. Modern Mormons believe the Book of Mormon is a revealed translation, solemnly receive priesthood ordination, and consider temples to be houses of God, much as Smith anticipated. The publication of his papers will permit readers to observe the origins of this resilient religious culture and throw light on the achievements—and the complexity—of its intrepid founder.