Responses: Joseph Smith’s Holy Ghost and the Messiness of Historical Theology

By May 7, 2012

[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 [2012]: 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Mormon history, the seven-volume History of the Church poses a particularly difficult problem, for though it draws from historical documents and is presented as if Joseph Smith himself wrote the text, the presence of later alterations, expansions, and deletions make it a generally untrustworthy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.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Origins Responses Theology


  1. Ben, you raise some good points here. I’m particularly interested in the notion of ‘evolving’ thought rather than, perhaps, what some circles might say is ‘unfolding’. Of course much of the intellectual development of LDS thought is easier to frame as pattern with hindsight, where we might apply what ever epistemology that serves our interest. Like you I have found numerous instances where the referential source is vague, incorrect or absent.

    It is interesting in Mormon circles, as a wider group things are often understood for being literal, accurate, as it was said, completeness. Whether in scriptures, related stories or quotes by general authorities there seems to be lay acceptance of its authenticity. The notion that things have been edited to suit a particular premise, or convey a message seems almost abhorrent to many LDS especially when dealing with matters of faith or doctrine. It seems that many wrestle with the idea that doctrinal principles have evolved intellectually, or the notion that the Church was not already endowed with the Quorum of the Twelve, the First Presidency, the Word of Wisdom, Temples from 6 April 1830. Ardis Parshall pointed out something to me years ago which has stuck out, if you want to see what actually happened or was said consult the incoming correspondance file not the outgoing response. The editing of a narrative itself is an intellectual pursuit, such examples include the portrayal of Emma Smith, the changing of the ‘great handcart disaster’ to the ‘great rescue’, including the narrative of Levi Savage, as well as Wilford Woodruff’s seemingly instantaneous revelation to go south,plus many more.

    It’s history Jim, but not as we know it.

    Comment by David M. Morris — May 7, 2012 @ 5:23 am

  2. A much needed response to this article. Issues of intellectual genealogy and development are tricky, but Wilson’s entirely static understanding of both Mormon and Protestant thought is more than a little problematic. And her caricature of Protestant preachers and their theology is as unfortunate as it is incorrect. Thanks, Ben.

    Comment by Christopher — May 7, 2012 @ 7:01 am

  3. Thanks, Ben. You make some very important observations.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — May 7, 2012 @ 10:05 am

  4. Good points, Ben. I was particularly interested in your comments on the Laub journal and the George A. Smith remark. That’s great critical historical thinking, and I commend you.

    With regard to your claim that “ideas have a tendency to change, progress, and develop over time, even within religious movements with authoritative truth claims like Mormonism,” you’re forgetting that Mormonism differs from most such movements because Mormonism is true. (Sorry, couldn’t help but channel FARMS in good Spiritualist fashion.) 😉

    Comment by Christopher Smith — May 7, 2012 @ 12:39 pm

  5. Thanks, all.

    Chris Smith: the commendation for the Laub remarks should rightfully go to J Stapley, primary source extraordinary.

    Comment by Ben P — May 7, 2012 @ 1:51 pm

  6. Yes, I think this is a general problem that goes well beyond just the critiqued article. Here’s the first sentence from Tom Alexander’s Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine article published in 1980:

    Perhaps the main barrier to understanding the development of Mormon theology is an underlying assumption by most Church members that there is a cumulative unity of doctrine.

    Comment by Dave — May 7, 2012 @ 3:37 pm


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