The Transformation of Joseph?

By March 13, 2008

I am currently trying to situate Joseph Smith within the larger American romantic movement, and am hoping for some help. While there are a lot of similarities between Smith and the likes of Emerson, I also agree with Clark in believing that these similarities can be easily overstated (see here and here). While both hoped to collapse the distance between the sacred and the profane, I just can’t get over Joseph’s institutional thought. To me, while they both wanted to bring people into the presence of God, Emerson focused on self-reliance and nature while Joseph utilized the priesthood. It seems like for the early Mormons romanticism merely served as an eclectic umbrella under which he could draw from many different traditions.

Also, and this is the topic I was hoping to be discussed, it seems that Joseph moved away from some of his romantic views later in life. Nate has persuasively shown that Joseph moved from theophany (Kirtland) to ritual (Nauvoo) when it came to the temple. I think he also centralized more authority in the hierarchy, requiring the members to rely on the Church and the priesthood rather than just themselves for salvation.

I know this is a really short post, and I purposely did not list more of my thoughts on the matter, but I want to see what JI readers think. Did Joseph move away from his romantic thought later in life?

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Methodology, Academic Issues


  1. Didn’t Moses also move from “romanticism (Sinai’s burning bush) to ritual (Mosaic law)?”

    Comment by mondo cool — March 13, 2008 @ 11:41 am

  2. Didn’t Moses also move from “romanticism (Sinai’s burning bush) to ritual (Mosaic law)?” As Nate points out, this may be a prophetic pattern. And, for those who are called to such positions, especially for those called “early” in life, this may be a maturation process. How much does the run-of-the-mill person move away from romantic thought later in life?

    Comment by mondo cool — March 13, 2008 @ 11:48 am

  3. Didn?t Moses also move from ?romanticism (Sinai?s burning bush) to ritual (Mosaic law)? I conservative/traditional reading of the Torah would suggest that. However, most scholarly research over the past 200 years would reject that

    Apart from _very_ conservative scholars the consensus on the Torah is that 1) Moses didn’t write it (the Torah also makes no claim that he did write it), 2) That it is an amalgam of at least two different sources which was later redacted together, and 3) That the source material and even the final redaction evolved over time and so the organization is most likely the product of an evolutionary process. Scholars argue over the details of all of this.

    Comment by David Clark — March 13, 2008 @ 12:39 pm

  4. I think one can overstate Nate’s point. One could well argue that the temple is designed to help us achieve a theophany, for instance.

    Also I think the developing of institutions isn’t there to remove self-reliance (which one must acknowledge is still pretty heavily stressed even to this day). Rather it is the idea that as we develop religiously we have to expand the circle of ‘self.’ One can argue that ritual – especially the expanded theology of marriage – is part and parcel of this development.

    As to tying this to Romanticism. Perhaps it’s Romanticism with an injection of John Donne? (grin)

    Comment by Clark — March 13, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

  5. I also agree that Joseph’s emphasis on ritual isn’t really inconsistent with self-reliance. At least, his famous comment (to Brigham Young?) that he wanted to endow everyone before leaving Nauvoo so that each man could be a king and a priest and commune with his God in the rocky mountains seems to link ritual with self-reliance/theophany.

    Recall also that the restoration of the priesthood, though an institution based on authority and ritual, is described in terms that evoke self-reliance. According to Section 1, the priesthood was restored so that “that man should not counsel his fellow man, neither trust in the arm of flesh? But that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world.”

    Comment by JKC — March 13, 2008 @ 2:41 pm

  6. Happy to concede to DC (#3), but still the idea of the *story* of Moses is that the pattern is to move from a more idealized, romantic view to one of formulaic ritual which, while not preventing the romantic per se, is, nonetheless, designed to foster both getting ahead and getting along. IE, promoting heaven while living in the world. I think Joseph came to understand the difference of requirements/circumstances of an individual encounter with Deity and those of a collective encounter.

    Comment by mondo cool — March 13, 2008 @ 2:47 pm

  7. Smith was pretty anti-individualistic. I think it’s fair to talk about his iconoclastic tendencies, his hermeticism, his reverence for nature and the mysteries of the past, but even if you’re not engaging in anti-hierarchalism propaganda, Smith saw salvation as unavoidably and inextricably communal.

    Comment by smb — March 13, 2008 @ 4:57 pm

  8. I agree with Sam. I find in Joseph an endless desire to be bound to each other, a communal view that does not mesh well with the likes of Emerson or Thoreau.

    Comment by Ben — March 13, 2008 @ 5:33 pm

  9. I can only draw conclusions from what the church looks like today, which is a paradoxical mashup of individual effort and empowerment (priesthood, personal revelation) with collective engagement and suppression of some of those individual efforts for the communal good.

    A good example is the church concept of welfare. We are taught and practice individual self reliance, but then both contribute and take advantage of the combined efforts of the whole as the need requires.

    Our current rituals seem to celebrate both our individuality and our place in a larger community.

    Comment by kevinf — March 13, 2008 @ 5:44 pm

  10. Wasn’t Emerson’s father and mother communialists with that affecting him negatively.

    Comment by Clark — March 13, 2008 @ 5:45 pm

  11. Funny, in the 1960s, we had both some “communal views” and a lot of Transcendentalism.

    Comment by Bob — March 14, 2008 @ 10:03 pm


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