If to some it seems presumptuous to call Joseph Smith a prophet, it will probably seem downright asinine to suggest that he was a poet too. And yet that’s the proposition I’d like to put forward in this post. The typical narrative renders Joseph as the unlearned ploughboy that he was, who could, as Emma assures us, hardly write a well-worded letter. But anyone who’s looked at how Joseph actually spoke and wrote (including anyone who’s followed along at all in the Gospel Doctrine course recently) knows that he used language in some interesting ways, ways that for some reason we do not often see language being used nowadays in the Church.
In reviewing his “teachings” and statements in the past year or two, it’s seemed to me that Joseph Smith’s language – both his words and manner of expression – is sometimes fundamentally unlike that of most subsequent Church leaders. It is lively, vivid, explorative, unconstrained, unregulated. He does not subscribe to an established code of language; rather, he often uses the language he has at hand in unprecedented, unconventional (sometimes ostensibly incorrect) ways. Where subsequent leaders have since relied on and standardized the linguistic concepts he laid down, he first had to make/articulate them.
Joseph, it seems, was not beholden to extant forms of language any more than residual forms of religion. He used language to circle round ideas, coming nearer to them and striving to sketch them more clearly with each new iteration. Like Emerson he was not interested in a “foolish consistency” of speech and was willing to use “words as hard as cannonballs” though they might contradict what he had said before. Like Samuel Clemens he would have had no respect for a man who only knew one way to spell a word – or one way to articulate an idea. Rather it seems he delighted in using the full arsenal of what language he had to expose the many facets of his truth. He recognized that no one expression would suffice, and acknowledged – in a way remarkable for his time – the “pliability” of words and language . As a result, his expressions were continually innovative and plural, coming at a central point of meaning from a variety of angles. From the Wentworth Letter comes a passage that seems to typify this practice:
The Father of our spirits [provided] a sacrifice for his creatures, a plan of redemption, a power of atonement, a scheme of salvation, having as its great objects the bringing of men back into the prescence of the King of heaven, crowning them in the celestial glory, and making them heirs with the Son to that inheritance which is incorruptible, undefiled, and which fadeth not away .
Where the grammar of our doctrine today is often reductive, Joseph’s seems almost multiplicative. It registers that the grandeur of God’s plan cannot not be delimited in a single effort or by static symbols. For Joseph, Christ’s actions would be only partially grasped through the label of ‘Atonement’; today ‘Atonement’ seems often seems beyond question as a sufficient term. We hold ‘testimony’ forward as an inclusive tag for personal religious conviction, but it seems unlikely that Joseph would have been satisfied with it. Probably he would have ranged about until he found another that cut against the grain of convention and became richly suggestive. Certainly all this contributes to the challenge of pinning Joseph down as a theologian.
The question, of course, is even if this is true, what does it have to do with poetry? Some of the most lyrical moments of the revelations or his own observations, may have approached the poetic, but Joseph’s writing cannot be classed as poetic under any usual system. While considering this tendency of Joseph Smith to introduce new relations between words and ideas that I encountered Percy Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry. The essay was a piece of early literary theory (written in 1821) patterned after Philip Sidney’s 16th century work of the same title and intended to show the enduring virtues of poetry for a modernizing world. In speaking of poetry, though, Shelley does not refer simply to literary form: he means the broader functions of language in human life.
According to Shelley, a poet is not primarily an aesthetician: he is a revelator. (The idea, of course, is not unique to Shelley.) The calling of a poet, not unlike a prophet, is to facilitate access to the hidden realms of the world through the use of language. In fact, Shelley suggests that poets have a prophetic pedigree, since they “were called in the earlier epochs of the world legislators or prophets.” Not merely writers, poets are “the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society and the inventors of the arts of life and [their] teachers.” Thus the category of “poetry” is much broader than we might expect. According to Shelley, it performs the following functions:
[Poetry] awakens and enlarges the mind…by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought. Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects as if they were not familiar; it reproduces (recreates) all that it represents;
The language of poets “marks the before unapprehended relations of things, and perpetuates their apprehension, until the words which represent them, become through time signs for portions or classes or thoughts instead of pictures of integral thoughts”;
and perhaps most poignantly:
[Poetry] purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures us from the wonder of our being. It compels us to feel that which we perceive, and to imagine that which we know. It creates anew the universe after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration .
Despite the ambiguity we as modern readers find in Shelley’s 19th century prose and our awareness that his insights must be now be reevaluated with more sophisticated theories (structuralism, deconstructionism, etc.), we gather from these statements that he sees poetry as the renewal/revivification/revelation of the surrounding world through uses of language. Through the administration of language – by making new connections between words, ideas, and hidden truths – the poet discloses new and exciting ‘religious’ knowledge.
However else Joseph functioned as a prophet, such a project does not seem to me all that far removed from his activities with language. He thought of words as media that could be discarded, appropriated and reapplied. His revelations (new ‘combinations’ or ‘relations’ of thought) needed new configurations of language to clothe them and to underscore their power.
On the other hand, in the modern church, there seems to be little of this innovation. Some of the reasons for this are understandable. For a theology to be coherent and durable, it must necessarily retain some kind of core terminology where terms like ‘Atonement,’ ‘first principles and ordinances,’ etc., play a part. With the expansion of Church, a need for standardization is legitimate, and managing the language of the ‘gospel’ presents a significant challenge in one language, let alone many. Beyond this, most of us feel a certain allegiance to the language of scripture. Finally, when Church leaders license variety they are always in danger of propagating “another gospel.”
Still, I can’t help feeling that in our dialogue in the Church we could use a bit more poetry; a little less leaning on conventional words and phraseology and a little more of the immersion in meaning that Joseph demonstrated. Dead language – cant – is the nemesis of every poet and prophet. To the extent that the familiar language “blunts” our perceptions of the invisible world, perhaps we ought to lay it down and make something new.
 Bushman gives Joseph’s thoughts on language a glance in Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2005), 173-174. Givens also relates Joseph to theories of language in By the Hand of Mormon (Oxford: OUP, 2002). See especially pages 80-89 and 209-214.
 “Wentworth Letter” quoted in Teaching of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, 52.
 Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Defence of Poetry” in Norton Anthology of English Literature, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et al. (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006), 837-850.