This is the second installment of the first annual JI Summer Book Club. This year we are reading Richard Bushman’s landmark biography of Mormonism founder, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005). JI bloggers will be covering several small chunks of the book (typically 2-3 chapters) in successive weeks through the summer. New posts will appear on Monday mornings.We invite anyone and everyone interested to join along. Please use the comment section on each post to post your own reflections and commentary on the chapters under consideration and ask questions. This week Steve Fleming takes a closer look at Chapters 3 (“Translation: 1827-30”) and 4 (“A New Bible: 1830”).
Previous installments in the series:
•Part I: Prologue, Chapters 1-2
3 Translation, 4 A New Bible (See part 1 here).
Bushman ends Chapter Two and begins Chapter Three by discussing how to make sense of the possible connections between the Smiths’ “magical” treasure-digging activities and Mormonism’s foundational events: receiving and translating the golden plates. Such similarities include seer stones, special treasure in the ground, and treasure guardians.
Bushman concedes that “Magic and religion melded in Smith family culture,” (51) but he argues that by 1827, the year he married Emma and received the plates, “magic had served its purpose in his life. In a sense, it was a preparatory gospel. Treasure-seeking lore may have made it easier for his father to believe his son’s fabulous story about an angel and gold plates” (54). Thus treasure digging played a “preparatory” role in the beginnings of Mormons, argues Bushman, and the treasure-digging elements in the events related to the golden plates played the purposed of Smith gaining his treasure-digging father’s support.
Bushman then begins chapter three by arguing,
By the fall of 1827, Joseph Smith stood on the line dividing visionary supernaturalism from rational Christianity—one of the many boundaries between the traditional and modern world in early-nineteenth-century America. He was difficult to place in relation to that line because he faced in both directions. Joseph looked backward toward folk beliefs in divine power communicated through stone, visions, dreams, and angels. At the same time, he turned away from the money-diggers’ passion for treasure and reached for higher, spiritual ends. The gold plates and angels scandalized rational Christians, while the religious impulse confused the money-diggers (57).
Here Bushman again noted the importance of Smith’s “magical” activities but argued that Smith was transitioning away from such. Yet it was not a complete transition since he was not leaving behind “beliefs in divine power communicated through stone, visions, dreams, and angels.” Smith instead was leaving treasure digging behind, but not a number of other beliefs. For Bushman, this meant that “Smith stood on the line dividing visionary supernaturalism from rational Christianity” and that “he was difficult to place.”
What needs to be unpacked here is what Bushman means by juxtaposing “visionary supernatural” and “rational Christianity.” Bushman doesn’t go into detail, but there really was a long struggle of these issues early modern Christianity. At the heart of this struggle is what scholars call “disenchantment” (based on a term that Max Weber coined) or the idea that as modernity approached, many of society’s intellectual elites insisted more and more that that the world was less and less infused with the supernatural. Such began in the late Middle Ages, really took off in the Reformation (whose leaders generally insisted that miracles and ceased) and became even more prominent in the Enlightenment (whose major thinkers rejected what they saw as false and foolish beliefs and practices by calling such “magic” and “superstition.”) Plenty of people resisted disenchantment, like Joseph Smith and his followers, but the battle line between disenchantment and supernaturalism (the belief in the supernatural) is a good way to give context to Bushman’s divide between “visionary supernatural” and “rational Christianity.”
This is not to say that disenchantment really was “rational,” but only those arguing for disenchantment claimed that they were being rational. That is, scholars need to make distinctions between etic (categories the scholar uses) and emic (categories the scholar’s subject uses) categories when using terms like “rational.” What is “rational” is very much in the eye of the beholder and different worldviews all are based on some sort of rationale. The historian’s task is to piece together and explore different worldviews and rationales of peoples of the past not to give stamps of approval of which we like the best. Bushman himself notes the difficulties of parsing out these issues.
I would also note here that the term “magic” itself ought to be treated as an emic rather than an etic category because the lines between religion, science, and magic have also been in the eye of the beholder throughout history. Therefore, instead of trying to figure out what was “religion” and what was “magic” in the Smith family’s practices, it’s better, I would argue, to try to understand how the Smiths themselves understood and categorized what they were doing. Bushman himself played a major role in advancing this understanding for the academy and for church members, but in light of recent scholarship on the topic, statements like, “magic and religion melded in Smith family culture,” can obscure the issues.
That is, I would argue that Smith did not stand between these two camps in 1827 but instead always remained firmly in the “visionary supernatural” camp. Though Bushman is correct to note that Smith came to have qualms about some of the actions involved in treasure digging, it is a mistake to imply that “rational Christianity” was “spiritual” and that “visionary supernaturalism” was about “passion for treasure.” In reality, the tension between serving God and mammon is found in most (if not all) worldviews. One could desire greater spirituality and still be firmly entrenched in the “visionary supernatural” worldview.
What Smith did do was to remove and mention to many of the things deemed “magical” or “superstitious” from his telling of the founding events. That is, he mentions treasure digging in his 1839 account but leaves out the seer stone and any other supernatural references. Indeed almost all the details of Smith’s treasure digging and seer stones come from other people: Lucy Mack Smith, Martin Harris, the Knights, and a host of other treasure-digging associates.
The tension between the disenchanting and supernatural worldviews was likely a major reason why Smith was reticent to talk about any practices he engaged in that would have been deemed superstitious. In the words of Wouter Hanegraaff, “Enlightenment thinkers hardly bothered to refute ‘superstitious’ beliefs. They had discovered a simple and much more effective tool to rid the world of invisible spirits: ridicule.” Smith’s two trials for being a money-digger coupled with the Hurlbut affidavits were more than enough to convince Smith to leave activities deemed “superstitious” out of his accounts.
Yet Smith’s reticence left later Mormons with the problem of trying to make sense of such practices and their relation to Mormonism since Smith did not explain it. As a result, it was left to later thinkers like Bushman to help us make sense of it all.
Many may balk that they want more than simply an academic view of Joseph Smith’s world, particularly if one is religiously invested in Joseph Smith’s claims. What about actual reality? This is natural, and to address that issue I would once again go back to Bushman’s dividing line: Joseph Smith strongly believed in an enchanted worldview and strongly rejected Protestantism’s disenchanting tendencies. Mormons tend to be sympathetic to Smith on this point (“have miracles ceased?”) and thus may be able to sympathize with different aspects of enchanted worldviews.
Therefore, in the unusual stories that Bushman discusses for the remainder of Chapter 3—from finding the gold plates in the ground, to keeping them hidden from other seers, to translating them with a seer stone—it is useful for the historian to keep all these dynamics in mind.
Chapter Four, The Book of Mormon, is a pretty familiar a topic. Feel free to leave comments about this and other topics, but it’s not the purpose of this series to argue about the Book of Mormon’s validity.
 Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 163-64.