As my contribution to this month’s theme of childhood, children, and youth, I want to throw around a couple of loosely-formed thoughts on how Mormonism fits into the history of childhood spirituality.
First, Mormons sometimes claim that the reason God appeared and spoke to the boy Joseph Smith that spring day in 1820 was specifically because JS was just a boy. As in the days of Samuel, God needed a pure vessel, one simultaneously untainted by worldly knowledge and skepticism and eager to learn and obey.
Of course, Joseph Smith isn’t the only boy/young man to experience a vision and receive a prophetic calling, and Mormons aren’t the only ones to connect the dots between the receipt of those visions and childhood innocence/willingness. American Christians have long used both the Old and New Testaments to bolster the claims of boy (and less commonly, girl) prophets and preachers. One researcher has found nearly 500 examples of child preachers from the 18th century until the present, and the phenomenon is particularly common in charismatic Christian churches, as the fascinating and somewhat tragic story of Marjoe Gortner illustrates. While historians have done a wonderful job of contextualizing Joseph Smith within the larger American prophetic tradition, they/we have mostly ignored where and how he fits into the history of childhood preachers/prophets. It seems like a potentially fruitful framework for understanding JS and his prophetic calling in new light.
Second, and somewhat related, I’m curious about the ways in which Mormons have historically understood childhood spirituality. I hear from time to time passing references to children (sometimes, very, very young children) having special spiritual insight because of their comparative closeness “to the veil.” The allusion to the Mormon doctrine of a pre-existence necessarily sets Mormons apart from their Christian counterparts, and I wonder how this, along with uniquely Mormon scripture more generally (I’m thinking of several scriptural passages here, including Mosiah 3:19, the oft-recited story of the stripling warriors, and the younger Nephi being privileged by God to rule over his older brothers) informs Mormon attitudes toward childhood and children. I’m not unaware of the very gendered nature of these stories as well, and wonder about their implications for Mormon understandings of boy- and girlhood.
What does everyone think? Any insights on either of these points? What other aspects of early Mormon history, theology, and scripture might be understood in new ways with greater attention to childhood?