Teaching Joseph Smith

By February 10, 2009

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?

Article filed under Biography Methodology, Academic Issues


  1. I look forward to hearing how your class reacts to the readings, particularly the Wood essay. My class read the Wood essay for class today and many students asked if he was LDS since he puts forth the proposition that the timing of Mormonism’s emergence could not have been more perfect. I suspect they see in his argument vindication of their personal faith.

    I’m also interested in how the students (and you, Matt) see Joseph Smith among other American prophets of his era. Many of the students in my class were quite offended by the comparison Richard Brodhead makes between JS and Nat Turner.

    Comment by Christopher — February 10, 2009 @ 10:08 pm

  2. he claimed however that they were not his words, but those of God.

    I realize this is probably a generalization, but it can be taken two ways. First, as a general statement of inspiration/revelation. Second, more specifically, as a divine dictation akin to what Muslims hold the Koran to be, and some Protestants (and Mormons) the Bible and LDS scripture.

    I’m not sure Joseph ever made statements supporting the second reading.

    Over-reading on my part perhaps.

    Who are your students?

    Comment by Nitsav — February 10, 2009 @ 11:56 pm

  3. Nitsav – while you may have a point about explicit statements that Joseph may or may not have made, many of the sections of the D&C, including 132, began with, roughly, “Thus saith the Lord,” and address Joseph himself in the second person. (The clause you excerpt, of course, is intended to reference only the D&C.) So, while we can parse issues of inerrency and literalism and so forth, but I think mine is a safe claim to make, and one that I’m not alone in asserting. Bushman, for instance, says something similar in the introduction to RSR. I’m teaching juniors and seniors.

    Comment by matt b. — February 11, 2009 @ 12:14 am

  4. (Matt) “Are the Mormons a people of, or outside, Jacksonian America?”. Good question. Were there two kinds: Jacksonian and a large group from England? Was the ‘draw’ the same?

    Comment by Bob — February 11, 2009 @ 9:25 am

  5. You’re teaching at Georgetown (I had to read your profile) or elsewhere?

    And in a course on prophecy, do you discuss things like inerrancy, the various natures of revelation, and so on? Or is that too theological?

    I looked up Bushman. It seems like he’s addressing the question of perspective (how to write about someone in a way that believers and non-believers can both read) instead of the theological question (the nature(s) of prophecy and revelation, and how different American prophets characterized them in different ways.)

    Comment by Nitsav — February 11, 2009 @ 10:33 am

  6. links to the Wood, Shipps, Foster, etc. writings?

    Comment by Paul B — February 11, 2009 @ 10:33 am

  7. I echo Paul, I’d like to read the Wood, Shipps, Foster etc. readings also. Particularly the Foster piece.

    Comment by Sherpa — February 11, 2009 @ 10:37 am

  8. Good luck, Matt.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — February 11, 2009 @ 10:56 am

  9. Nitsav – In part, yeah. This is a history course, not a theology course; as the course description implies, we’re doing social rather than intellectual history in it.

    Additionally, though I do get your point, it seems to me that the Book of Mormon would be a more fruitful place to discuss the questions you’re raising than the D&C. I honestly don’t think that original claim you quoted is that controversial, given how Joseph and his contemporaries (the John Whitmer story Bushman tells lots of places seems relevant here) treated the revelations. Authoritative, but it does seem that Joseph was never satisfied with words enough to claim inerrency: the JST, the re-editing of many D&C texts, and so forth. Indeed, ‘inerrency’ as we understand it was an anachronism in his day. This is all interesting, I think, but for my students, who are interested primarily in Joseph Smith in his context rather than the theological conundrums of being Mormon today, perhaps too detailed.

    The interesting thing about JS – and a point that I will raise in class – is then how textual his revelations were, as opposed to, say Anne Hutchinson or Tenskwatawa or other folk that the class has discussed. We may well have a discussion about respective issues of words as a revelatory medium juxtaposed with, for instance, the very visual experiences of a Nat Turner.

    Folks – I’m going to add links to the readings I mentioned. Alas, two are books (or in books), so not so much available for free online.

    Thanks, all.

    Comment by matt b. — February 11, 2009 @ 11:42 am

  10. he claimed however that they were not his words, but those of God.

    It seems that Bushman quoted witnesses who described the revelatory experiences that led to the D&C as Joseph slowly speaking the revelations, sentence by sentence, while a scribe dictated them. Am I remembering this correctly? While this is not Joseph’s description, could not this be consistent with either the revelation/inspiration or the dictation models in comment #2?

    Comment by The Teacher — February 11, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

  11. Very glad to be able to read this. Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Clean Cut — February 11, 2009 @ 1:01 pm

  12. Will you be discussing how Joseph differed from the other prophetic figures in at least two ways:

    1. He brought forth an ancient text, claiming to be from ancient prophets.

    2. Many of his revelations were shared with others. Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, Frederick G. Williams, Martin Harris, David Whitmer and others shared in the revelatory experiences of Joseph Smith.

    Comment by Rameumptom — February 11, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

  13. As usual, I will embarrass myself through an ignorant question, but I often wonder how unique Joseph Smith is in the context of American religion. There are some other examples of prophets who wrote down their revelations, right? Is Joseph the only prophet to produce anything akin to a new scripture?

    Comment by John Turner — February 11, 2009 @ 3:32 pm

  14. It’s a good question, John. I think Smith is clearly an outstanding example of this sort of thing, but he’s not the only one. Not all prophets (like Matthias or Nat Turner) seemed to feel impelled to produce scripture, but some did. And of course, many actually wrote a great deal, but didn’t call their writings revelation – Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, for instance, is quasi-canon, but it’s not quite the same things as the Book of Mormon. Other examples: the Delaware prophet Neolin, for instance, produced something called the “book of life,” which seems to have been a Dante-style salvation map of some sort based upon his visions. The most comparable figure, though, would be Ellen White, the Adventist prophetess. She’s the only one I’m aware of who matched Smith in both volume (think she actually exceeds him, there) and revelatory genre.

    And of course there’s a few spiritualists, like Andrew Jackson Davis and Edgar Cayce, who produced material that they claimed was dictated from supernatural sources.

    Comment by matt b. — February 11, 2009 @ 4:42 pm

  15. Sounds like a fun class, Matt. I’m especially glad you’re including Native prophets.

    Comment by David G. — February 11, 2009 @ 5:18 pm

  16. Many of the students in my class were quite offended by the comparison Richard Brodhead makes between JS and Nat Turner.

    Offended? I’m both unsurprised and nauseated by that fact. On the issue of prophets and the production of scriptural revelations, the Shakers did some of that during the era of manifestations. I’m thinking especially of the Holy Sacred and Divine Roll and Book (1843)which contained revelations to “instrument” Philemon Stewart as well as translations of texts written by Biblical figures such as John the Revelator.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 11, 2009 @ 5:41 pm

  17. Would it be fair to say that Ellen White produced prophetic writings (I haven’t read them, so I’m speculating) somewhat akin in genre to JSJ’s revelations but that her corpus of writings is far less “scriptural” vis-a-vis the Book of Mormon because it lacks the latter’s epic narratives and measure of cohesion? I’ve never heard anyone refer to White’s writings as amounting to a “new Bible” or the like.

    Comment by John Turner — February 11, 2009 @ 11:26 pm

  18. Here is a prophet with published revelations in upstate New York, 1818. I created a separate .pdf just now, for anyone who might wish to see this entry from my Mormon Parallels (2008):


    Comment by Rick Grunder — February 12, 2009 @ 12:17 am

  19. Rick, that is one fascinating source. Thanks for being so generous in sharing it with us here.

    Comment by Christopher — February 12, 2009 @ 12:39 am

  20. Rick,

    Thanks so much for pointing this parallel out. I found it more than fascinating, the piece is quite remarkable.

    You comments about Ernest Strack are quite moving. Unfortunately I only met him and his wife once while I was a student at BYU. His bookstore was quite a place and was quite a hang out for students. I wish I had spent more time there.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — February 12, 2009 @ 1:25 am

  21. Nice.

    Didn’t Southcott publish some revelations?
    Surely there were some French Prophets who published scripture at some point?
    Taysom, some people have argued that Ann Lee instantiated the text rather than supporting scripture per se, that she was highly anti-textual. The Era of Manifestations revelation would be a departure from that.
    Alex Campbell has an anti-revelatory Bible that may be interesting to counterpose.
    Rafinesque’s Walum Olum is a fun comparator but not ostensibly revelatory.
    I absolutely love the modern Native folk legend that Handsome Lake gave JSJ the idea for the Book of Mormon. It’s in Taylor’s dissertation.
    Swedenborg and the New Jerusalem Church might be an interesting comparison, recognizing that Swedenborg was a hundred years earlier and in Sweden. Nevertheless, his popularity in America around the time of JSJ is worthy of consideration.
    Did the Mountain Cove guys write revelations?
    What about the Catholic Apostolic Church in Britain, which proselytized some in America? Did Irving or the others ever write a revelation?

    I think JSJ is certainly unique in the success of his new scripture, but I suspect that there will be a wide variety of new scriptures that came forward in the century flanking him.

    Comment by smb — February 12, 2009 @ 7:39 am

  22. Read Hawley–he’s an interesting example spanning visionary literature, of which there was an amazing output, and Biblical mimesis, something mb has covered masterfully in a treatment of the contemporary Gillite Church. It’s worth bearing in mind that Biblical mimesis was central to the preaching and writing of a variety of populist evangelicals (I still can’t figure out what to call these people, whether sectarian or folk or charismatic or radical), whose memoir-journal-exhortations are filled with appropriations of Bible scriptures. The tapestries these believers created are rich and sometimes startling.

    And Hawley almost sounds like he was reading Swedenborg sometimes, though it’s entirely possible they were both following implicit canons of peri-Enlightenment visionary culture.

    Comment by smb — February 12, 2009 @ 7:48 am

  23. Sam,
    It’s tough to know with any certainty just what Ann Lee said about anything–all we have are later recollections which tend to be confirmatory of Shaker practice in the early 19th century and highly suspect. So the degree to which Lee saw herself as an instantiation of scripture is less certain (although it’s likely) than the fact that the next generation of Shaker leaders saw her that way (which is a fact). In any event, she certainly never produced scripture per se, although one might argue that the narrations of her visions of Christ were D&C-esque. And you’re right about the Era of Manifestations–that was a break with lots and lots of things in Shaker tradition.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 12, 2009 @ 9:31 am

  24. Smb,

    I have never encountered any written revelations from Irvingites (at least not in the books that I have read that treat the movement). Also, another nineteenth-century figure who produces any amazing amount of material in a short time through revelatory means (“automatic writing”) was Madame Helen Blavatsky, one of the major founding figures in the late nineteenth-century Theosophical movement. Stan, I’m sure would know more about Blavatsky than I do.

    Perhaps helpful lens through seeing all of this talk about revelation and prophecy is to say that Smith and White and Turner have a “family resemblance” to one another. This is a term from Wittgenstein where he tries to show a word like “game” can help describe many different practices, from football to checkers. There is no one singular set of traits that these practices have in common, but they are more or less related. Some scholars use this conceptual tool to describe how we can talk about “Hinduism” as a “religion,” and I use it to talk about “pilgrimage” as a ritual activity done by many groups across cultures. “Prophets” may have a series of family resemblances, but these commonalities will vary between the prophets compared.

    Comment by David Howlett — February 12, 2009 @ 11:50 am

  25. John – I think your contrast is dead on, and I’d certainly endorse Howlett’s relationship theory. The contrast also holds for most of the people Sam cites; Southcott, for instance, published revelations much like White’s (my favorite title of hers is The Second Book of Wonders: More Marvellous Than the First, which might be the first sequel subtitle in history).

    However, the interesting thing about the Book of Mormon is the degree to which Smith’s consciousness of himself as an author is utterly missing. This isn’t true of White or Southcott or even Nat Turner; it probably has more in common with Spiritualists who channeled (like Blavatsky). I think there was a Dialogue article or something about this a couple decades ago.

    Comment by matt b — February 15, 2009 @ 8:56 pm

  26. I agree with matt b. A big difference in revelation has to do with whether the revelations were concerning current events or ancient ones (Book of Mormon). How many other prophetic figures produced a book of ancient issues, such as this one?

    Comment by Rameumptom — February 19, 2009 @ 4:33 pm


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