Joseph Smith and Poetry-Prophecy

By May 14, 2009

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 [1]. 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 [2].

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 [3].

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.


[1] 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.

[2] “Wentworth Letter” quoted in Teaching of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, 52.

[3] 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.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Sorry for the length…I’m turning into Ben…

    Comment by Ryan T — May 14, 2009 @ 7:41 pm

  2. Not too long at all, Ryan. I think this was an excellent essay.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — May 14, 2009 @ 11:13 pm

  3. Sorry for the length?I?m turning into Ben?

    Now if only you could reciprocate some of your genius for my length.

    Fascinating post–it is great to have someone else here who will pull from the Romantics.

    One difficulty with pinning down JS’s language is we have so few words coming directly from him–most are filtered through his scribes, and it helps that one of them, “Billy” Phelps, was quite poetic himself.

    SMB’s recent Church History article on JS and the quest for pure language is another good write-up on the topic.

    Comment by Ben — May 14, 2009 @ 11:56 pm

  4. I had the same thoughts here as Ben re: the little we actually have from Smith himself. It would be fun and interesting, though, to track the history of this transition from “multiplicative” to “reductive” language in the church. Was this transition occurring as early as the 19th century? Or is it the more recent result of correlation in the 20th? Some very interesting things to think about. Thanks, Ryan.

    Comment by Christopher — May 15, 2009 @ 12:04 am

  5. I know with every fiber of my being, beyond the shadow of a doubt that what you have said is the only true and living post at the JI.

    Comment by Jared T — May 15, 2009 @ 12:04 am

  6. Well the Romantic era, going, in some measures, till 1855 with Wordsworth’s Prelude and especially Whitman’s Leaves of Grass – this would put Joseph squarely in the Romantic milieu – some would call it the era of Jacksonian democracy in America. What an exciting, turbulent time to put a prophet in!

    Comment by cadams — May 15, 2009 @ 12:50 am

  7. Prophets as poets, and poets as prophets, is not a silly thought. Boccaccio and other humanists espoused it, I assume with classical models.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — May 15, 2009 @ 8:38 am

  8. I think Brigham Young’s description of Joseph Smith is apropos:

    Joseph Smith was a poet, and poets are not like other men, their gaze is deeper, and reaches the roots of the soul; it is like that of the searching eye of angels; they catch the swift thought of God and reveal it to us, even at the risk of forgetting their underclothes and their suspenders.

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 15, 2009 @ 9:28 am

  9. That Brigham Young quote sounds like it could have been written by Orson F. Whitney. Do you have the source on it, SC? Because now I’m wondering if Young influenced Whitney or vice versa.

    Much of Whitney’s work is about the link between poets and prophecy, and it’s very much in a post-Romantic vein.

    Comment by Wm Morris — May 15, 2009 @ 9:34 am

  10. One difficulty with pinning down JS?s language is we have so few words coming directly from him?most are filtered through his scribes, and it helps that one of them, ?Billy? Phelps, was quite poetic himself.

    You’re right, Ben. When we started the lesson manual in Sunday School a while back I couldn’t believe how distinct Joseph’s language was. In all my exposure to his theology, it had come through mediated channels. Still, much of what we get even there, or in the papers project is indirect. I don’t know much about Joseph’s scribes, but it seems to me that the closer we come to his own language, the more vivid it gets.

    Comment by Ryan T — May 15, 2009 @ 9:54 am

  11. Great post, Ryan. I place a great deal of hope in the growing community of LDS poets and visual artists in reviving creative uses of language and religious imagination. These artists might succeed in creating a new poetic language that will force the institutional church to examine and expand its own poetic-prophetic voice.

    Comment by Elizabeth — May 15, 2009 @ 9:59 am

  12. @#8 Fascinating quote…Brigham of course would have been aware of his own underclothes and suspenders.

    @#9 I’ll have to look more closely at Whitney and others reaching from prophecy toward poetry. I know that that many Romantic figures – including Emerson and Carlyle – were explicitly trying to tie themselves into the old prophetic discourse. Both of them wrote works on “Great Men” in which prophets and poets were made equivalent and figured prominently.

    Comment by Ryan T — May 15, 2009 @ 10:02 am

  13. @#11 I share your hope, Elizabeth. I think I would say that mine also extends to everyday language and imagination. I don’t think I expressed this very well in the post, but it seems that the activity of poetry is what is critical here – experimentation with language wrests us away from a complacent view of our religion and stimulates imagination and/or perception. To me it should be a habit of mind for all of us.

    Comment by Ryan T — May 15, 2009 @ 10:09 am

  14. SC’s quote reminds me of Virginia Sorensen’s A Little Lower than the Angels, during JS’s “courting” of Eliza R Snow where he says something like: “Prophets and Poets are always meant for each other.”

    Comment by Ben — May 15, 2009 @ 10:38 am

  15. Nice, Ben. Prophetic-poetic pickup lines…(and how do you make those little smiley-face things?)

    Comment by Ryan T — May 15, 2009 @ 10:48 am

  16. Here’s an excerpt from SMB’s “Pure Language” essay that Ben recommended. It clarifies some of Joseph’s attitudes toward language and its use. In particular I think it underscores Joseph’s awareness of the insufficiency of language, and perhaps therefore a freedom to experiment with it:

    Human language, hopelessly maimed by the curse of Babel, represented a mere echo of the holy pictographic language of Adam. Without divine intervention, such language could not communicate the truths of salvation; nor could it support the society of heaven. Where more educated minds urged the abandonment of such aspirations or used the insight primarily to attack orthodox theology, Smith and Phelps pressed on.

    Samuel Brown, “Joseph (Smith) in Egypt: Babel, Hieroglyphs, and the Pure Language of Eden,” Church History 78:1 (March 2009), 40.

    Comment by Ryan T — May 15, 2009 @ 11:27 am

  17. Wm. Morris,

    The quote comes by way of The Essential Brigham Young, which apparently got it from The New York Herald in September 1877. I haven’t checked the provenance of the quote myself.

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 15, 2009 @ 11:34 am

  18. Thanks.

    If the 1877 date is correct, that would put Orson F. Whitney at age 22. Interesting. It never occurred to me that his preoccupation with poetry and prophecy could have origins in Brigham Young (and whoever else floated the same meme). I had always imagined (but not really researched) that he had come up with it as a way to reconcile his fondness for the Romantic poets with his devotion to the work of Joseph Smith. A way to meld the two major streams of his intellectual/creative life.

    Too bad my theory-heavy literary training didn’t prepare me to do historical research. 😉

    Comment by Wm Morris — May 15, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

  19. [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

    Brilliant. Must read more Shelley. I tend to agree with the argument that poetic form has reduced our ability to recreate numerous worlds or fields of vision, because familiarity allows us to feel a sense of balanced standing. I love worshiping in the temple because it always mixes me around and cracks a lens that was merely a glass darkly refracting light.

    Good work sir.

    Comment by Tod Robbins — May 15, 2009 @ 7:19 pm

  20. @11

    I think this can be easily applied to the administration of priesthood blessings. Anyone else feel the complete inadequacy of translating, transferring, and decode the Spirit for the sake of another?

    Comment by Tod Robbins — May 15, 2009 @ 7:37 pm

  21. re: #13. Totally agree, Ryan. Bravo. Do you have any suggestions for ways in which people would participate in this poetic activity/habit of mind? Some Latter-day Saints likely feel a degree of comfort with their religious language and do not feel that anything is lacking either linguistically or spiritually (just advocating for the devil here). Is it merely experimentation with language that broadens our religious imaginations or is it experimentation with ways of living that are more imaginative or that promote such a religious imagination? I would think that poets, professional and amateur, could set the example for such experimentation in both their words and their lifeworks. I am thinking primarily of our transcendentalist friends, here. I would say that most of all it was their lives that opened horizons of religious imagination for them more than just experimentation with language. Habits of mind are also habits of being, of living. Perhaps we aren’t living up to the full potential of our language and thus our language and imaginations suffer. Thoughts?

    Comment by Elizabeth — May 16, 2009 @ 2:24 am

  22. Fascinating topic.
    A fuller treatment would want to think through the meaning of the poetized Vision that JSJ had our boy Billy write for him in response to the allegation that JSJ suffered from comparison to Isaiah because Isaiah wrote in poetry and JSJ wrote in prose (Hicks treats this in his original paper, and I explore it some in the ghostwriting paper in JMH).
    I believe, both on a devotional and a scholarly level, that JSJ understood marvelously and profoundly the potency of language and the ideas it was trying to convey.

    I remember the way Neal A. Maxwell used to play with language–though he was much gentler and more urbane, I think Br. Maxwell shared with JSJ a love for the complex correspondences of language.

    Comment by smb — May 17, 2009 @ 9:53 am

  23. You take this in a great direction, Elizabeth…absolutely the kind of exploration I hoped for. The way I see it, language is primarily valuable for the way it helps us conceive, and yes, ultimately be and live. I’m really not fluent in semantics/semiotics, but I think it’s pretty straightforward that language (all symbols, in fact) enable us to negotiate/make meaning. Perhaps it’s as close as I can come to an understanding of ‘spiritual creation.’

    As for how poetic habits might be developed, I have a couple modest suggestions…most of them probably no news for a scholarly audience. The first is a refusal to let words go uninterrogated. It’s amazing to recognize, sometimes, how words spoken and used without comprehension or curiosity; they’re treated as closed symbols when this is far from true. “Ordinance” is a good example. I’m surprised at how few people puzzle over what this term is or means. As someone raised in the Church, I’m still occasionally finding language that I haven’t looked hard at and having it surprise me.

    Perhaps one other is simply trying to articulate one’s self independently, writing/speaking/thinking – as all the composition instructors say – in one’s own words (in your language, Elizabeth, living on one’s own terms). Doing so is a process of translation where we shift concepts from institutional or other foreign “dialects” into familiar language and perhaps back again. Ultimately I think a habit develops from this: we separate ideas from language, or at least learn that the connection between them can be made to serve the ends of our own understanding.

    Comment by Ryan T — May 17, 2009 @ 4:29 pm

  24. SMB: Interesting that you should mention the difference between poetry and prose. Joseph would have been vindicated, for Shelley specifically denounces that duality in his Defence: “The distinction between poets and prose writers is a vulgar error.” He sees the sound and music of poetry as secondary to its imaginative and intellectual functions.

    And yes, Neal A. Maxwell is an interesting touchpoint in this discussion. Though his rhetoric sometimes struck me as a little overwrought, he understood how connotations of a word could be invoked in new contexts, illuminating new concepts and ideas. I think you’re right that, like Joseph, he seems to have shared a especially deep appreciation for “words of wisdom.”

    Comment by Ryan T — May 17, 2009 @ 4:32 pm

  25. Oh, and got to church today and remembered that the JS Manual is for Priesthood and RS meetings, not Gospel Doctrine…I stand corrected.

    Comment by Ryan T — May 17, 2009 @ 4:39 pm

  26. Ryan, your suggestions are invaluable, I think. I appreciate this post and your replies immensely. Could you explain a bit more what you mean by “spiritual creation”? Also, what are some of the other concepts or terms in the church that you feel require less reductionism and more creative exploration?

    Comment by Elizabeth — May 17, 2009 @ 11:06 pm

  27. Elizabeth:

    I was afraid you’d ask me to clarify there…and I’m not sure how well I can do, but I’ll make an attempt, though it will stray from the post.

    “Spiritual creation” is a concept that both fascinates and stymies me – one that, as I understand it, is relatively unique to LDS theology (although I confess a weak grasp of comparative theology and correction would be welcome). It has not been authoritatively outlined (see here for another commentary) beyond the understanding that in the divine order of creation, spiritual acts precede and correspond in some way to physical ones (Moses 3:5,7; D&C 29). Beyond this there much speculation, though temple instruction and occasional comments from general authorities seem to throw some light on the matter. For instance, Elder Bednar recently said that:

    We learn from these verses that the spiritual creation preceded the temporal creation. In a similar way, meaningful morning prayer is an important element in the spiritual creation of each day?and precedes the temporal creation or the actual execution of the day. Just as the temporal creation was linked to and a continuation of the spiritual creation, so meaningful morning and evening prayers are linked to and are a continuation of each other. [“Pray Always,” Ensign (Nov 2008).]

    One question about this concept is whether spiritual creation refers to a constructive mental activity or some kind of spiritual act (apparently upon spiritual matter). Another interesting, related issue is the potential connectedness of these two possibilities.

    My own speculation about spiritual creation is that it involves a combination and synthesis of intellectual activity/planning and spiritual activity (which to me remains obscure). One of the values of some of the activities with language we’ve been discussing is the way they can contribute to an intellectual mapping of the religious/spiritual realm…and thus perhaps be part of our own spiritually creative enterprises.

    As for other terms and language that could be explored I think the examples are legion: “first principles and ordinances,” “Gospel,” “Lord,” and “worship” come quickly to mind, along with a host of others that are particular to LDS belief. Nothing inherently wrong with these terms or their use, of course. I suppose I simply mean to call for recognition in general that worn typologies and expressions can and often do constrain our spiritual vision and blunt our spiritual appetites.

    Comment by Ryan T — May 18, 2009 @ 3:04 am

  28. Another interesting observation re Joseph’s poesy made by Parley P. Pratt:

    He possessed a noble boldness and independence of character…his language abounding in original eloquence peculiar to himself – not polished – not studied – not smoothed by education and refined by art; but flowing forth in its own native simplicity, and profusely abounding in variety of subject and manner.

    Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, eds. Scot Facer Proctor, Maurine Jensen Proctor (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2000), 40.

    Comment by Ryan T — May 19, 2009 @ 5:59 pm

  29. Ryan: It’s as if you just started going through PPP’s autobiography for some reason… 😉

    Comment by Ben — May 19, 2009 @ 7:26 pm

  30. Ryan, thanks for your responses. They have given me a lot to think about. I could ask questions indefinitely, but perhaps we could converse more about this at some point.

    Comment by Elizabeth — May 19, 2009 @ 10:51 pm

  31. Thanks all, for discussion/insights.

    Comment by Ryan T — May 20, 2009 @ 1:59 pm

  32. […] Yale Divinity School (MA, Religion and the Arts) Favorite JI post: Stan; also, Ryan T.’s Joseph Smith and Poetry-Prophecy Research Interests: medieval bestiaries and manuscript illumination, aesthetics, play-writing, […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » The Juvenile Instructor Turns 2 — October 26, 2009 @ 9:15 pm


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