I have been dealving into Nauvoo-era theology recently–a task not for the faint of heart. There are plenty of un-touched topics there just waiting to be analyzed, but one of the themes that has stood out to me the most, however, is Joseph Smith’s reconception of the state of the body–its nature, its potential, and even its inherent power. These are some preliminary thoughts on the topic; preliminary, because it only relies on sermons reproduced in Ehat and Cook’s Words of Joseph Smith (and only those before summer of ’43 at that), and engages very limited contemporary and secondary sources. (Also, since we have been getting quite a bit of discussion on Joseph Smith’s view of spirits lately, I thought we should even it out by also engaging his view of the body.)
In the last few decades, the scholarly study of religion has become more aware of the importance of the body in religious thought. Indeed, as William LaFleur notes, the body has “moved from recognizing that religion involves the body to acknowledging” that it plays a major role in religion, even to the point that studies that do not involve the body in some way “now seem out-of-date.” Similarly, Richard H. Roberts writes that “the body is…a core concern in world religious traditions, and the body as locus of experience, object of desire, source of metaphor, and icon of self representation is a pervasive preoccupation of Western…culture.” This post will only go so far as engaging Joseph Smith’s views of the body, rather than influences or implications of bodily logistics in itself.
LaFleur explains further that “cultures, subcultures, and religious institutions position themselves somewhere on a spectrum between one pole, where the body is considered a given, and its opposite, where somatic placity is regarded as not only allowed but even desirable, an index to religious identification and involvement.” In the early Christian tradition, beginning with an exegesis of Paul, “early Christians paradoxically at once devalued and reified the body.” Since then, western Christianity has struggled with the importance and significance of the body, ranging from several attempts of sacralizing corporality to Origin’s self-castration, and since the Reformation has generally sided with a suspect view of the human body. When Joseph Smith entered the scene, American Protestant views of the human tabernacle, largely influenced by traditional dualistic theology, were largely negative.
However, by the time the young LDS Church was settled in Nauvoo, Mormon theology already held a very positive outlook on the body. Joseph Smith’s ideas concerning the eternal—and divine—state of the body were equally bold. Though his response to the Methodist minister in 1843—“There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter but is more fine or pure and can only be discerned by purer eyes”—has become famous, he had been teaching this materialistic view for several years by then. Almost two and a half years earlier, in early January 1841, he taught that “that which is without body or parts is nothing,” even going so far to deifying the body: “There is no other God in heaven but that God who has flesh and bones.” Beyond just implying the eternal nature of the body, Joseph Smith taught that it was a crucial characteristic of God.
Further, Smith taught that gaining a body was a key component of mortality. He claimed that “before the foundation of the Earth in the Grand Counsel that the Spirits of all men ware[sic] subject to oppression & the express purpose of God in Giving [them] a tabernacle[sic] was to arm [them] against the power of Darkness.” Two months later, he similarly explained that “God saw that those intelegences had Not power to Defend themselves against those that had a tabernicle therefore the Lord Calls them togather in Counsel & agrees to form them tabernicles so that he might [en]Gender the Spirit & the tabernicle together so as to create sympathy for their fellowman.” Indeed, beyond just being a positive result of earthly existence, Smith believed that attaining a body was its primary objective—that “no…person can have this Salvation except through a tabernacle.” He summed up this thought in a discourse devoted to the subject in 1843:
The design of God before the foundation of the world was that we should take tabernacles that through faithfulness we should overcome & thereby obtain a resrection from the dead, in this wise obtain glory honor power and dominion for this thing is needful, inasmuch as the Spirits in the Eternal world, glory in bringing other Spirits in Subjection unto them, Striving continually for the mastery, He who rules in the heavens when he has a certain work to do calls the Spirits before him to organize them. They present themselves and offer their Services.
Indeed, Joseph Smith’s theology defined corporality as a position of power rather than a trait of existence, and was a tool to position them over the devil and he legions. “All men have power to resist the devil,” he explained in 1841, because “they who have tabernacles have power over those who have not.” “The greatness of [the devil’s] punishment,” he taught two years later, “is that he shall not have a tabernacle[.] this is his punishment.” Franklin D. Richards remembered him calling it the “mortification of satan,” and that he and his demons often make it a goal to take possession of bodies, but are forced to leave “when the proven authorities turn him out of Doors.” The Mormon Prophet even used a corporality-based test—that of shaking hands—as a way of detecting true angels from false spirits: “If an Angel or spirit appears offer him your hand; if he is a spirit from God he will stand still and not offer you his hand. If from the Devil he will either shrink back from you or offer his hand, which if he does you will feel nothing, but be deceived…Angels are beings who have bodies and appear to men in the form of man.”
What observations have you made concerning Joseph Smith’s–or for that matter early Mormonism’s–view of the body? Sadly, as with many of Smith’s teachings, we are not able to get a full view of his ideas due to his premature death and the sporadic nature of his recorded sermons. Further, as Richard Bushman notes, Smith “never presented his ideas systematically in clear, logical order,” but rather they “came in flashes and bursts.” Therefore, “assembling a coherent picture out of many bits and pieces leaves room for misinterpretations and forced logic.” One thing that I am continuing to notice–and be frustrated by–is how rarely he followed his theological innovations to their logical end or contemplated philosophical implications. Thus, it is probably impossible to confidently determine the full meaning in the Prophet’s mind. However, there is more than enough to generate discussion and contemplation.
 William Lafleur, “Body,” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, Mark C. Taylor, ed. (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 36.
 Richard H. Roberts, “Body,” in The Blackwell Companion to the Study of Religion, Robert A. Segal, ed. (Malden, MA & Oxford: Blackwell Publications, 2006), 213.
 LaFleur, “Body,” 38.
 Roberts, “Body,” 216.
 Roberts, “Body,” 217-221.
 Joseph Smith Sermon, 17 May 1843, recorded by William Clayton, in Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph, Religious Studies Monograph Series, no. 6 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980), 203.
 Joseph Smith Sermon, 5 January 1841, recorded in William Clayton’s Private Book, in Words of Joseph Smith, 60.
 Joseph Smith Sermon, 19 January 1841, recorded in McIntire Minute Book, in Words of Joseph Smith, 62.
 Joseph Smith Sermon, 28 March 1841, recorded in McIntire Minute Book, in Words of Joseph Smith, 68.
 Joseph Smith Sermon, 14 May 1843, recorded in Wilford Woodruff Journal, in Words of Joseph Smith, 200.
 Joseph Smith Sermon, 21 May 1843, recorded in Howard and Martha Coray Notebook, in Words of Joseph Smith, 207.
 Joseph Smith Sermon, 16 May 1841, recorded in William Clayton’s Private Book, in Words of Joseph Smith, 74.
 Joseph Smith Sermon, 14 May 1843, recorded in Wilford Woodruff Journal, in Words of Joseph Smith, 201.
 Joseph Smith Sermon, 21 May 1843, recorded in Franklin D. Richard’s “Scriptural Items,” in Words of Joseph Smith, 208.
 Joseph Smith, December 1840, recorded in William Clayton’s Private Book, in Words of Joseph Smith, 44.
 Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knoft, 2005), xxi.