Joseph Smith

By Robert V. Remini

In the latter half of the second century CE there arose a movement in Asia Minor known as Montanism (named after its leader, Montanus) or “the New Prophecy.” Montanus was a charismatic Christian leader who based his authority on being directly inspired by the Holy Spirit. To some extent Montanism was the last gasp of early Christian enthusiastic teaching, something that was still widespread and popular at a time when the New Testament canon was just closing its books and the authority of Church leaders was being consolidated. Given the moment, Montanism was duly condemned as heretical and its adherents excommunicated. The age of Christian prophecy was officially over.

The problem the Church had, according to Diarmaid MacCulloch in his general history Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, was not with the teachings of Montanus. These are mostly irrecoverable today, but MacCulloch finds “little that could actually be described as heretical in what they said.” Instead,

It was not so much the content of these messages that worried the existing Christian leadership of the area as the challenge which they opposed to their authority. By what right did this man with no commission, in no apostolic succession, speak new truths of the faith and sweep crowds along with him in his excitement?

. . .

The Church was settling on one model of authority in monarchical episcopacy and the threefold ministry; the Montanists placed against that the random gift of prophecy. The two models have a long history of conflict in the subsequent Christian centuries: the significance of the Montanist episode is that this is the first time the clash appeared.

The reason for the conflict is pretty obvious. The only way organizations of any type can function over time is through a clear system of rules and an administrative chain of command. The Church in the second century was becoming a political institution, complete with its own official hierarchy. The “random gift of prophecy” upsets all of that and indeed threatens the very existence of an established order. A prophet’s authority is necessarily absolute: though they would never claim to be God, this is only casuistry. Joseph Smith rejected those who accused him “of pretending to be a Savior” and claimed instead to be “a plain, untutored man; seeking what he should do to be saved.” But at the same time, his Book of Mormon was, he said, given to him “directly from heaven . . . [and] that he penned it as dictated by God.” So where can a distinction be made? As Yahweh says to Moses in Exodus, “I have made you like God to Pharaoh.” As God’s chosen vessel and speaker of his divine word, a prophet is a proxy for the Almighty: above any moral, religious, legal, or political sanction. They are laws unto themselves, and must co-opt the old order or found a new one based on their authority.

There is some historical irony in the fact that Christianity itself was such a movement, a Jewish splinter sect forming around a charismatic leader. What’s more, Jesus’s end would set the pattern that other prophets would follow: persecuted by both the religious and the political establishment and finally executed.

This pattern has been re-enacted countless times, with varying degrees of success. David Koresh’s takeover of the Branch Davidian sect by claiming the gift of prophecy was a dead end. Joseph Smith and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, however, took off and never looked back. Despite the different outcomes, the parallels are obvious: the same splintering away from an established church; the same foundation in charismatic prophecy; the same questionable “marriage” practices, which, as so often, involved older men in positions of power wedding very young women (something the early Mormon leaders said they were reluctant to do, but that God commanded); the same persecution by church and state (Haun’s Mill, Waco); the same bloody ends for their leaders.

I’m in no way condoning the kind of intolerance that led to the tragedy in Waco or the persecution of the Mormons and the murder of Joseph Smith, but it’s important to recognize why these things happen. No state, or church, can allow individuals to claim a separate, sovereign authority. They must be cast out. There may even be something in our evolutionary biology, as social animals, which dictates this, some ground rule written into our genetic code for group preservation.

Leaving that final speculative point aside, however, there was still ample justification for the kind of backlash that the Mormons experienced. Fear of a theocratic dictatorship was not mere paranoia, as Smith at the end of his life did in fact (if in secret) set up what has been described as a “shadow government” with himself as anointed “King, Priest and Ruler over Israel on Earth” (so much for the “plain, untutored man”). He also rejected all previous forms of Christianity, contending “that all other religions and their preachers were corrupt and an abomination in the sight of God” and declaring that only the Mormon Church was the true Church of Christ. He also set out to either take over the current government (he was planning on running for president) or create his own. As Robert Remini concludes, “it is most probable that he was executed for the simple reason that his political activities had become extremely dangerous to the citizens of surrounding towns.”

It is hard to write the biography of a prophet, as you have to either believe that your subject was right (that is, divinely inspired), deluded, or a fraud. There are no other options. In this brief biography, part of the Penguin Lives series, Remini tries very hard to remain non-judgmental, but this is finally impossible. One suspects that Remini (who is not a Mormon) leans toward the fraud definition, but doesn’t want to offend anyone by coming out and saying so. His summary judgment, that Smith was “a decent man who claimed to be a prophet of God,” is tepid and safe, but takes a very American sidestep. Smith’s critics “could not extinguish his message or the promise he made to his followers of their ultimate triumph. They could not prevent the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from achieving global recognition and acceptance.” In other words, all that really matters in the end is not whether Smith really was what he claimed to be, but that his was a success story. Say what you want about his motives or authenticity, there his Church stands, an international corporation that is one of the richest in the world.

In getting to this point Remini has to accept, or at least recite, quite a lot of the Mormon party line. A good example is the idea that the Mormon faith was not something new, or even a reformation of the established Church, but rather a restoration of what had been lost. In particular what this meant was a return to the practices and beliefs of primitive Christianity (that is, Christianity before the second century CE). Smith, in Remini’s words, made it clear that “it was not his purpose to reform Christianity, like Protestant churches. Rather, he had come to restore what was ancient and lost, restore the teachings and institutions of the Savior, restore the doctrines and practices of the New Testament Church.”

This is nonsense. Mormonism made a complete break with traditional Christianity. The new covenant revealed to Smith had, in the words of the Lord, done away with previous dispensations. As already noted, Smith found that all other religions and their preachers were corrupt and an abomination in the sight of God. What followed could never be construed as a restoration.

And even if restoration had been Smith’s intention, how could he possibly have effected it? What did Joseph Smith know of the early Church? When he took to rewriting the King James Bible, revising it and correcting what he considered to be mistranslations, he did so under the influence of the Holy Spirit, not through the exercise of any special training in ancient languages. And whatever one thinks of the Book of Mormon, whether one takes it to be the inspired word of God or just a slack, crudely-imagined fantasy, you can’t deny that in terms of its theology it’s something entirely new. Smith was restoring nothing. He was settling a new frontier.

This is, however, a short biography, and Remini is less concerned with theological matters and religious history than he is with broader political and cultural developments. Joseph Smith is as much a portrait of a period as it is of the man. Remini is content to place Smith in the context of the intellectual and religious ferment of the Age of Jackson and the Second Great Awakening, and for the most part is very good in dealing with this side of things (though readers may lift an eyebrow skyward at his calling the election of Andrew Jackson “the beginning of the long love affair Americans would have with their victorious generals”).

My own preference would have been for a more critical, and I suppose sceptical, biography. As noted, however, writing about a prophet is hard. One’s sources are muddy, and access to those sources often involves some degree of compromise. The same difficulty apparently faces anyone wanting to write about more recent American prophets such as Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard today. Is this muddiness the same fertile Nilotic ooze from which Gods (and their prophets) have always arisen? If so, we need historians to drain the swamp.

Review first published online July 11, 2016.

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