[The most recent installment of our “Responses” series, in which someone responds to a recent article of interest in Mormon studies.]
As someone interested in the historical development of LDS thought, especially during the first few decades, I was excited to see Lynne Hilton Wilson’s fascinating “A New Pneumatology: Comparing Joseph Smith’s Doctrine of the Spirit with His Contemporaries and the Bible” (BYU Studies Quarterly 51, no. 1 : 119-152). Historical theology and intellectual history can be a tricky field, particularly when contextualizing someone’s ideas with the surrounding culture, though it can be highly rewarding when done right. However, while there was much to enjoy in the article, there were some aspects that made me pause. Besides disagreements with how Wilson presents Joseph Smith’s Protestant culture in general, often in attempt to make Mormon ideas more distinct from antebellum America, as well as disagreements with how she interprets Smith’s theology in particular, often in attempt to make his 1830 beliefs more consistant with those in 1844, there were a few methodological points that I think deserve examination.
Although intellectual history may not be as archive-based as some other historical sub-fields, source-criticism is still an important task. Especially when attempting to reconstruct ideas in a particular era or decade, it is crucial to give priority to contemporary documents over later reminiscences. In early Mormon history, the seven-volume History of the Church poses a particularly difficult problem, for though it draws from historical documents and is presented as if Joseph Smith himself wrote the text, the presence of later alterations, expansions, and deletions make it a generally untrustworthy source; the Joseph Smith Papers Project’s publication of most of the primary sources upon which History of the Church relies, both in print and online formats, makes Wilson’s uncritical reliance on these books (121, 134, 145, 147, 150, 151) all the more troubling. Similarly, Wilson bases some of her discussion about the Holy Ghost on George Laub’s “notes” of a Joseph Smith sermon that took place weeks before Joseph Smith’s death (126), echoing a claim presented in Andrew Ehat and Lyndon Cook in their important Words of Joseph Smith (1990). But this dating has since been challenged. As Jonathan Stapley astutely pointed out, the notes for this 1844 sermon are not found in Laub’s 1845 journal, but were additions made decades later and are therefore more likely representative of the more systematized theology of Utah than of the inchoate nature of Joseph Smith’s thought.
Further, ideas have a tendency to change, progress, and develop over time, even within religious movements with authoritative truth claims like Mormonism. It is imperative, then, to be aware of changing circumstances in which words can take on different meanings. Terms like “the spirit of god” (126, fn. 19) and, more especially, “election” (138-140) meant different things throughout Joseph Smith’s life as new revelations, ecclesiastical practices, and ritual developments—the “line upon line, precept upon precept” process—introduced new frameworks and definitions for old phrases. This problem is compounded with reminiscences given long after Smith’s martyrdom. For example, Wilson quotes George A. Smith as saying “There was no point upon which the Prophet Joseph dwelt more than the discerning of Spirits,” referencing Ehat and Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, which seems to imply that this was a contemporary statement (135). However, this is misleading, as the quote actually comes decades later in Utah in the midst of Mormonism’s confrontation with Spiritualism—a debate in which spiritual discernment meant something completely different.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I was troubled with how Wilson dismissed other religionists’ spiritual claims. She introduced Smith’s contemporaries as those who practiced “bizarre behaviors” (129), described manifestations “fabricated by Lorenzo Dow” as “clearly fraudulent,” and claimed “similar dubious claims of communication from the Spirit” were prevalent during the era. These are descriptions that LDS historians decry when used to describe Joseph Smith and other early Mormons, with good reason. Descriptors like “bizarre,” “fraudulent,” and “dubious” are often in the eyes of the beholder and have been fortunately denounced by the historical academy. If we wish religious scholars to take a more charitable approach to early Mormons—who at times experienced spiritual manifestations like those of Lorenzo Dow—then we should similarly show that same sympathy for Mormonism’s contemporaries. A wonderful example is found in Richard Bushman’s “The Visionary World of Joseph Smith” (BYU Studies 47, no. 1 [1997-98]: 183-204), which does not question contemporary spiritual claims but rather sympathetically uses them to shed light on the Mormon Prophet.
Historical theology is a tricky, complicated, and often messy topic, and we should thus be careful in our attempts to reconstruct the fascinating, complex, and dynamic thought of early Mormonism.