Book review: Reid L. Neilson and Terryl Givens, eds., Joseph Smith, Jr., Reappraisals after two centuries. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)

By September 10, 2009

This review, originally appearing in a slightly different version in Mormon Historical Studies 10:1, is reprinted here with the kind permission of Alex Baugh and Jacob Olmstead, editor and book reviews editor, respectively.

It is a mark of the fascination that Joseph Smith inspires in students of religion and religious history (the present author not excepted) to the present day that, despite the plentitude of biographies, specialized studies, movies, hymns, visual art and all the rest that his life has evoked even only in the past sixty years, this volume is still welcome. And perhaps, given that admission, it will not seem harsh criticism to say that the book seems both utterly necessary and yet, in both the whole and in some of its parts, insufficient ? not so much to its particular scholarly goals, but to the larger task of apprehending the man. The haunting cover art, a portrait of Smith entitled ?Monday, 24 June 1844, 4:15 AM; Beyond the Events,? (a title incorrectly rendered on the back cover of the paperback edition) by the Italian LDS artist Pino Drago, captures the enigma. Smith, rendered in the naïve style, seems simultaneously flat and, perhaps because of that, otherworldly; his hands are powerful, his clothing unnaturally stiff, his face half in and half out of shadow. And his eyes are unreadable.

As with Mormonism in total, academics have generally used historians? tools to grapple with Smith?s life. And, as editors Neilson and Givens argue ? a point Laurie Maffly-Kipp later unpacks with great vigor and clarity in an essay that itself might have served as a good introduction to the collection ? too often this strategy has led to a conceptual dead end: ?the difficulty of moving beyond the question . . . whether Smith was a prophet or a fraud.? (7) And indeed, much of the work on Smith?s career since Fawn Brodie?s No Man Knows My History (1946) can be characterized as a war over Smith?s trustworthiness, as scholars skeptical of Smith?s claims have striven for epiphenomenal ways to account for him only to find themselves vigorously rebutted by believing historians. Maffly-Kipp suggests that this problem is perhaps a case of improperly reviving a question that St. Augustine resolved centuries ago when he confronted the Donatists; in a sacramental religion like the one Smith established, exactly how relevant are the personality flaws of the founder? But Maffly-Kipp here sidesteps another issue, and one that suggests the pile of combative monographs could, potentially, rise upward without end. That is, quite simply, the historian?s tools do not equip her to render the verdict. As Robert Orsi has recently noted, the modern discipline of history is premised upon knowledge that footnotes can replicate; what Orsi calls ?abundant events,? such as Catholic visions of Mary, overflow such categories, and history (and historians) are too often incapable of dealing with them.[1]

The solution Neilson and Givens propose is to multiply the number of tools in the scholar?s chest. This is wise, and useful. The volume should, one hopes, introduce many historians of Mormonism to a wide variety of other disciplines that will not only enrich their everyday work, but may also indicate new frameworks to approach the seemingly eternal conundrum of Joseph Smith. Included in this collection are essays by literary critics like Richard Dilworth Rust, Givens, and Richard R. Brodhead, students of religious studies like Catherine Albanese, Douglas Davies, Neilson, and Maffly-Kipp, specialists in the Hebrew Bible like Margaret Barker and Kevin Christensen, and Richard Mouw, an evangelical theologian, in addition to historians James Allen, David Whittaker, Richard Bushman, and Klaus Hansen.

Many of these essays are enlightening, and offer the reader a Joseph Smith colored in surprising ways by the shadows of new contexts. The essays Maffly-Kipp and Brodhead provide are already classics, and both, interestingly enough, re-direct us away from Smith himself. To what extent, they ask, can we collapse Mormonism into the seemingly unique ideas and experience of a single man? Maffly-Kipp notes that perhaps Mormonism should be understood not as the faith Joseph created, but as the diversity of experience that followed in his wake. Reid Nielson?s essay on the Mormon encounter with Asia in the nineteenth century, though primarily focused upon the American side of things, offers a tantalizing glimpse of the fruits of such labor. Similarly Brodhead and Wayne Hudson, in another essay, propose readings of Smith that contextualize him in religious ways, as a prophet among prophets, an exemplar of a type. Mormon historians are used, by now, to thinking of Joseph Smith as an American; scholars since Brodie have credited him with the expansive optimism and rough-hewn can-do-ness of the early nineteenth century. The contributions of Catherine Albanese, Klaus Hansen and James Allen indicate that despite the how well trod the path is, there is still more to be gained from such a strategy. Tired as comparisons to Jacksonian egalitarianism might be, rooting Smith in other historical contexts ? antebellum constitutional politics, in the case of Allen, and folk culture, in the case of Albanese ? still provides us with useful insight. However, as the insights Brodhead and Hudson show, arguments from other disciplines (perhaps because, curiously, most of the great historians of Mormonism until the past decade or two have not been historians of religion) that describe Smith?s religious experience as something other than blazingly unique are still somewhat unfamiliar.[2] Douglas Davies?s essay, relying most particularly upon the theology of Paul Tillich, and that of Richard Mouw, who examines Joseph Smith in dialogue with the evangelical tradition, illustrate usefully the ways such contextualization reveals both the continuities and the divergences of Mormonism?s relationship with the Christian tradition.

All of these essays, and others ? Kevin Christensen?s application of the Old Testament analysis of Margaret Barker, giving us a Joseph Smith who reinvented (or, the two would have us believe, revived) Biblical tradition; Terryl Givens?s thoughtful and useful essay positioning Smith as a romantic in the school of no one so much as William Blake, one for whom the process, rather than the result, of religion making was all; Richard Dilworth Rust?s comparison of Smith and Herman Melville, which might be read as an interesting application of Givens?s theory ? grandly illustrate the editors? success at their stated goal: to show, via a ?variety of interpretive strategies? that there is much still to be learned about Joseph Smith, and new paths are only beginning to open. (7) The combatants in the old historical wars over his honesty would do well to pay attention.

But despite these frequent observations ? by both these scholars and others, such as Bushman ? that Smith himself is hardly the total story of Mormonism, scholars (again, perhaps fascinated) frequently have an inclination to paint Mormonism as a heroic and largely theological narrative, an intellectual and religious achievement flooded in every cranny by Smith?s inimitable brilliance. This tendency appears at times in this volume when authors like Givens, who emphasizes ? perhaps overly so ? Smith?s labors ?to free himself from the burdens of theological convention, intellectual decorum, and ? perhaps most especially ? the phobia of trespassing across sacred boundaries.? (107) In one stroke, Smith here is separated from two thousand years of complex and diverse Christian thought, a wild and overgrown field in which one might struggle to find any consistent ?convention.? Hansen offers a similar paean, separating the ?Joseph of history? from ?Joseph the prophet.? (33) Mormonism as a whole, Hansen posits, offered a set of values and ideas which struggled with evangelicalism for the soul of Americans. When he turns to Smith himself, however, Hansen cites Harold Bloom to label the man as simply a genius, someone whose accomplishments are not reducible to explanation. Both of these arguments, interestingly enough, use the implicit metaphor of the artist ? Hansen draws upon Bloom?s poetics, while Givens presents us with a Smith drinking deep of the same cultural mood as Wordsworth and Whitman. The mystery of prophetic genius seems almost Byronic.

But Hansen?s strategy also brings to mind, perhaps, the work of theologians like Martin Kahler, who discuss the division between the ?Jesus of history,? whom diligent research might learn about, and the ?Christ of faith,? whose power can only be encountered through religious experience. [3] And it is here that we seem to run into the same problem all over again ? how much closer have we gotten to the mind and heart of Joseph Smith himself? I do not wish to minimize the value of this collection ? it is, in a word, groundbreaking, and I suspect it will be cited as an inspiration for future interdisciplinary studies for years to come. The new strategies these essays offer ? of literary criticism and religious studies, wider historical contextualization and philosophical theology ? have gotten us closer to what Joseph did and how he did it, and to a deeper understanding of who his contemporaries understood him to be.

But these strategies avoid the questions of truth and inspiration that historians have been beating against for decades. Richard Bushman, in his own thoughtful essay, takes precisely this tack ? it is his intention, he states up front, to examine the function of Joseph Smith, not to ?explore questions about the sources of Smith?s lasting influence.? (94) This is, perhaps, the best academics can do. But the nagging question still remains, because those sources ? the possibilities of visionary experience that Smith experienced, and, as importantly, imparted to followers like Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, and others ? lie exactly at the heart of who Joseph Smith was. In another context, the eminent theorist of religion Jonathan Z. Smith warned us that if students of religion hid behind words like ?demonic? and ?crazy? instead of seeking to understand the religious creation of Jim Jones, they might as well abdicate their claim to understanding religion at all. [4] It may be that, as Orsi laments, the critical apparatus given to scholars in the humanities is insufficient to apprehend Joseph Smith, and we must continue to use words like ?genius? to describe his puzzle. But, one hopes, the sort of work this volume offers may eventually bring us a sword capable of cutting through the Giordian knot Joseph presents to us.

[1] Robert Orsi, ?Abundant History: Marian Apparitions as Alternative Modernity,? Historically Speaking (September/October 2008) 12-16.
[2] Most such work to date has compared Joseph?s early visions to evangelical conversion experiences; see Richard Bushman Joseph Smith: rough stone rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005) 38-40.
[3] Martin Kahler, The So-Called Jesus of History and the Biblical Christ, Carl Bratten, trans. (1892; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964)
[4] Jonathan Z. Smith, ?The Devil in Mr Jones,? Imagining Religion: from Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1982) 102-120.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Origins Intellectual History JIers in Print Methodology, Academic Issues State of the Discipline


  1. Very nice Matt. Smith is probably the single biggest scholarly influence on my own work, but I think his essay on Jones needs further clarification (from him, not from you). I completely agree that using pejorative language to dismiss Jones (and the rest) is useless, but I think Smith needs to be more explicit when he says that we must “understand” Jones (and Joseph Smith, and Ann Lee, etc). For some scholars, as you are aware, this is taken to mean that anything a scholar writes about a tradition must be something with which members of that tradition would agree. To my mind, understanding does not necessitate the agreement of scholars and practitioners, but rather an intellectually coherent and supportable analysis which may be based on any number of methodological tools beyond the phenomenological. I wonder if most Mormons would settle for that kind of understanding when it comes to Joseph Smith.

    Comment by SC Taysom — September 10, 2009 @ 11:18 am

  2. Thoughtful as always, Matt. I enjoyed it.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 10, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

  3. Thanks for the review, Matt and to MHS for allowing its posting.

    Comment by Jared T — September 10, 2009 @ 4:12 pm

  4. I like JZ Smith. Sort of like Nabokov, but he is sketching the complex generative organs of religions (and their scholars) rather than of butterflies.

    Nice piece, mb.

    Comment by smb — September 10, 2009 @ 8:46 pm

  5. Thanks for the review, Matt.

    Comment by Christopher — September 11, 2009 @ 8:26 am

  6. Great review, Matt.

    Comment by Ben — September 11, 2009 @ 9:13 am

  7. Nice work, Matt. Thanks.

    Comment by Ryan T — September 11, 2009 @ 9:26 am

  8. Thanks, matt, and thanks to MHS for allowing the review to appear here.

    Comment by David G. — September 14, 2009 @ 9:35 pm

  9. […] former volume has already been reviewed on JI by Matt B. It has several prestigious authors, multiple perspectives, and more than a handful […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » 2009 in Retrospect: A Glance at Important Books and Articles from the Last 12 Months — December 1, 2009 @ 8:44 am


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