One of the objectives for most Mormon historians today (including this blog) is to attempt to place Joseph Smith within his American framework. One author who has succeeded the most in this attempt is Richard Bushman, author of Rough Stone Rolling. However, in his address at The Worlds of Joseph Smith Symposium in the Library of Congress, he spoke about putting limits on this type of approach. In it, he makes several arguments as to why Joseph should be placed within a larger framework than just American religious history.
First, he stated why he feels this “transnational” approach is necessary.
The broader the historical context, the greater the appreciation of the man. If Joseph Smith is described as the product of strictly local circumstances – the culture of the Burned-over District, for example – he will be considered a lesser figure than if put in the context of Muhammad or Moses. Historians who have been impressed with Joseph Smith’s potency whether for good or ill, have located him in a longer, more universal history. Those who see him as merely a colorful character go no farther than his immediate environment for context. No historians eliminate the local from their explanations, but, on the whole, those who value his genius or his influence, whether critics or believers, give him a broader history as well. (pg. 4)
Other quotations from his argument:
In the nineteenth century, historians of all stripes…agreed that Joseph was more than American. Something about his life and accomplishments transcended his time and place. (pg. 5).
Joseph had to have a broader history to explain his extraordinary powers, and both critics and friends supplied him with one. (pg. 6)
To be comprehended, Joseph had to be viewed from two historical perspectives – one national and the other a transnational history of apostasy and restoration. (pg. 6)
He then reviews many of the major national-type of histories that biographers have placed Joseph in, concluding that they “strip the Prophet of grandeur and depth, even the gothic horror of the religious fanatic” and “do not open new vistas for readers.” Bushman then says that he expects “that Joseph Smith’s future biographers will swing back toward the nineteenth century’s combination of American analysis and transnational histories of the Prophet, allowing Joseph Smith to escape a confining provinciality” (pg. 9). This is because, he claims, “The American history of Joseph Smith looks for causes: what led Joseph Smith to think as he did? Comparative, transnational histories explore the limits and capacities of the divine and human imagination: what is possible for humans to think and feel?” (pg. 11).
Bushman then concludes with this summary.
It is doubtful that a purely American history of the Mormon prophet will explain him. His mind ranged far beyond his own time and place, and we will have to follow if we are to understand. A small history will not account for such a large man. (pg. 18)
So, my question is, how do we balance American and transnational history? Are we often too quick to try and explain things by his cultural settings, or is that the best way to proceed? Does explaining Joseph by using the American history approach really limit Joseph to a religious fraud?