I’m teaching a course this semester called “Prophecy in American History.” We’re examining particularly the interaction between prophetic figures and the society around them. How did they use religion to critique, affirm, or offer alternatives to the world they lived in? In what ways does religion shape what it means to be an American, and vice versa? After an introductory class in which we read Max Weber, Rodney Stark, Anthony Wallace, and Walter Brueggemann on the nature of prophecy, we have turned our attention to a series of American prophets. We began with Anne Hutchinson; next week we’ll discuss Nat Turner.
The week following, we’ll visit Joseph Smith.
What I’ve reproduced below is the blog entry that I’ll post the night after the Nat Turner course, introducing the students to the readings they will do for Smith.
Joseph Smith is an intensely paradoxical figure. Some historians have argued that he is an embodiment of Jacksonian America, that early-nineteenth century age characterized by egalitarianism, the exaltation of the common man, and rough-and-tumble political and cultural democracy. Mormonism, these historians maintain, placed the power of Christianity in the hands of average Americans.
Other historians have instead argued that there is something to the popular perception of the Mormons in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This saw the faith as hierarchical, secretive, and even – as in early Utah – theocratic; it claims that Joseph Smith understood religion to be undemocratic, and that instead he used it to create a type of society very different from those in the America around him. That society some described as aristocratic, or dynastic, or even monarchical.
Our readings explore both sides of this debate. Read the Wood article first, asking what it was that early Mormon converts saw in the religion Joseph Smith preached. What did it offer Americans of the Jacksonian age? Follow that with Shipps, who offers a much more textured account of the creation and development of Mormon identity. What did Joseph Smith, in her account, understand prophecy to be? And, more particularly, what did it mean to be Mormon? How did that religion create an identity for, and offer salvation to, its followers?
Follow this with the texts from Mormon scripture. From the Book of Mormon, read the Introduction, 1 Nephi 1-4, and 4 Nephi. From the Doctrine and Covenants, read sections 76 and 132. The Book of Mormon, of course, is the text Joseph Smith claimed to be an ancient record from a Christian civilization in the Americas. The 1 Nephi chapters open the book, and describe where that civilization came from. The selction from 4 Nephi describes the state of that society in the years following an appearance Jesus made to them shortly after his resurrection. The Doctrine and Covenants is a collection of revelations dictated by Smith; he claimed however that they were not his words, but those of God.
Section 76 describes the afterlife, but Section 132 deals with polygamy. Follow it with the Foster piece, which describes how Smith began to practice plural marriage. How does the Mormon community that polygamy created compare to that in, say, Wood’s essay? Are the Mormons a people of, or outside, Jacksonian America? How does the Doctrine and Covenants compare to the Book of Mormon? Are they consistent or inconsistent? What does salvation mean to Joseph Smith?