EXAM B. 2
"Write an essay on the subject of Joseph Smith, Jr. and the rise of the Mormon
movement. How does Smith figure in our understanding of Mormon origins, the
development of Mormon doctrine, early Mormon millenarian expressions, and early
Mormon racial beliefs and practices?"
Joseph Smith, Jr. (1805-1844), the founder of Mormonism, has called forth a
stream of interpretations. The thousands of books written about the Mormon prophet
range from hagiography to debunkings to modern efforts at contextualization and
psychological analysis. The great majority of these works are of no scholarly value.
Among the minority which hold significance for scholars, there are five general
1. The Campbell-Howe-Hurlburt approach. In February 1831 Alexander
wrote an article entitled "Delusions" in the Millennial Harbinger, in which he maintained
Mormonism was an ignorant deception, reflecting its 19th century American origins.
This theme was elaborated in E. D. Howe's Mormonism Unvailed (1834), based on the
apostate Mormon Philastus Hurlburt's collection of affadavits designed to show the
Smith family was composed of shiftless, cunning necromancers. A variant element in
this tradition is the Spaulding-Rigdon theory of the Book of Mormon's origin.
2. The Mormon official historiographical tradition. Begun by Oliver
Joseph Smith, and continued by B. H. Roberts and Joseph Fielding Smith, Joseph is
portrayed against the background of his time as a divinely-commissioned prophet.
3 . Psychological Interpretations. In 1902 I. Woodbridge Riley wrote
of Mormonism. He rejected any interpretation of Joseph as a deliberate fraud and
introduced a halucinatory explanation. Perhaps the outstanding recent example of a
psychological approach (which is also indebted to all the other approaches) is Fawn
Brodie's No Man Knows My History. In my view, her basic approach has fundamental
4. The environmental approach(es). These attempt to locate Joseph
Smith in his
religious-cultural-economic-social-historical context. There are several variations:
a) The Frontier school. Generally discarded among recent interpreters, the last
significant attempt at such a Turnerian approach was Milton R. Hunter's Mormonism on
the American Frontier (1940). Emphasis here is placed on frontier religion as
democratic, optimistic, and anti-Calvinist. Emphasis is placed on Indians and the
Mormon westward movement.
b) David Brion Davis has emphasized the New England origins of Mormonism from the
viewpoint of Intellectual history. He sees Mormonism as an anachronistic attempt to
recover elements in the Puritan tradition which were being lost, especially a sense
of overarching authority, a coherent intellectual ordering of the cosmos, a sense of
community, and a society coterminous with the church. In short, Mormonism sought
relief from frontier individualism. In fact, it was an alien intrusion in the West. The
Frontier is where Mormonism was almost destroyed, not where it was born, he argues.
c) A modified "Frontier" theory has been advanced by Mario S. DePillis. DePillis
warns against a "straw man" definition of the frontier based solely on western locale
and low density of population. For him the frontier is a social-psychological process
of dislocation lasting up to a generation. Mormonism began in such a sectarian
breeding ground and continued to draw new converts from such (chiefly rural) changing
environments. Ultimately DePillis' definition of the frontier is so broad that it
includes S.E. Pennsylvania and Manchester, England! He also unfairly classifies
Whitney Cross and others as "New England origins" advocates, which is a half-truth.
d) Burned-Over District contextualizers include Whitney Cross, Fawn Brodie, Thomas
O'Dea, and Alice Felt Tyler. Cross sees Mormonism as developing in a relatively
mature but now rapidly maturing Palmyra, with rural roots and Yankee recruits. My own
research tends to corroborate his view that the early Mormons were largely of Yankee
stock. The New England mind—set loose in the environment of the Burned-over
District—was simultaneously credulous, emotional, rationalistic, and communally-
minded. The successive shocks of social change, sectarian innovation, and revival
enthusiasm and controversy helped to breed Mormonism.
5. The biographical approach. While there have been numerous studies
Smith and Brigham Young, the approach to early Mormonism via biography has not been
fully exploited. Competent biographies of early figures such as Newel K. Whitney,
Edward Partridge, or W. W. Phelps would immensely aid in the interpretation of
In my view, Joseph Smith's role in the creation of early Mormonism must be
synthetically, i.e., embracing all of the above elements (with the exception of the
supernatural elements in the second approach). The evidence of early necromancy
alleged by Howe and others has now been confirmed by the discovery of the record of
Joseph Smith's 1826 So. Bainbridge, N.Y. conviction. The creative role of Joseph's
personality—with his capacity for nearly unlimited imagination, charismatic
leadership, and sense of the dramatic—is essential to early Mormonism's development.
The whole story is incomprehensible without it. But Joseph did not operate in
vacuum: he both molded and was molded by his environment. The influence of the
West cannot be completely ruled out: interest in the Indians was the basic ingredient
in the Book of Mormon. And, why was Zion located in the West instead of Kirtland
or New York? Joseph Smith was in fact fascinated by a religious version of Manifest -
Likewise, New England played a part in Joseph Smith's development. His
heritage on the Smith side included rationalistic, anti-sectarian tendencies. On the
Mack side were mystical, visionary, and communitarian strands. Both sides of the
family incorporated dissenting elements. And the traditions of folk magic and money-
digging which launched Joseph on his career were carried by the Smith family from
western Vermont to New York.
The Burned-over district was the most critical environmental factor in
early religious formation. Its local Indian legends provided the basic idea for the
Book of Mormon. Its sectarian controversies provided the fundamental longing for
unity and authority which his new revelation and church supplied. Its religious
disputes provided the questions to which he supplied authoritative answers. Its
openness to innovation gave him his initial opportunity.
But Mormonism was no static creation. It underwent constant evolution
Joseph Smith's lifetime. Changed locales brought the need for the church to adapt.
And even more importantly, Joseph's mind evolved. It was eclectic and absorptive.
It claimed and reformed every idea with which it came in contact. Joseph Smith
evolved as a religious leader, and with him, his church and his doctrine developed.
Early Mormonism was dynamic in the extreme.
Joseph Smith evolved in his career from a necromancing treasure-hunter, to
translator of golden plates, to a revelator-prophet, to king of the Kingdom of God on earth.
Mormon doctrine underwent a similar though not strictly parallel development.
During the necromancing stage. Mormon "doctrine" properly speaking did not exist.
Joseph Smith adhered to a variety of folk beliefs about seer stones, witching sticks,
and buried treasure.
During his "translator" stage (1827-29), Mormon doctrine unfolded
Here Christian primitivism was the basic motif, with the addition of certain beliefs
about Joseph as translator and the Book of Mormon as inspired. The Book of Mormon
appealed to those who were weary with sectarian strife, desired Christian unity and
restoration of primitive Christianity, and who sought reformation of a corrupted church
controlled by greedy priestcraft. Alexander Campbell immediately recognized
(perhaps with horror) that the Book of Mormon answered the key controversies of
—The Trinity (a sort of Tritheism).
—Arminianism (nature of the fall, Infants not damned, universal atonement, free agency).
—Plan of Salvation (justification through obedience to the precepts and ordinances of
the Gospel, repentance and faith—rationalistically conceived—baptism for the
remission of sins, and laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost).
—Ecclesiology (adult baptism by immersion, memorial view of the Lord's Supper,
ordination by elders, correct formulae for all of the preceding, church officers—
lay elders, priests, teachers—and correct church name, viz ., the "Church of Christ").
—Primitive gifts continue in the present age (tongues. Interpretation of tongues,
healing, prophecy, revelation, exorcism).
—Miscellaneous confirmation of anti-masonry, republican government, and the rights
David Whitmer, one of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, who
left the church, wrote a book toward the end of his life entitled An Address to All
Believers in Christ (1887). Here he maintained the divine origin of the Book of Mormon
while complaining that Joseph Smith had apostatized by giving additional, altered, and
false revelations (for which he had no calling) and by tampering with the name and
structure of the church, making it into something very different from the church in the
Book of Mormon. He was especially critical of the expanded hierarchy and polygamy,
both of which were contrary to the Book of Mormon. David Whitmer wished to remain
at the Christian primitivism stage of Mormonism. But Joseph Smith's creative mind would
not remain idle.
Joseph's career as prophet gradually shifted toward that of
culminating in his kingly coronation (secret) in 1844. It all began innocently
enough In 1829 when Mrs. Martin Harris stole the first 116 pages of the .Book of
Mormon MS . Joseph faced a dilemma, for he could not exactly reproduce the missing
pages and risked exposure as a fraud if he attempted same. The problem was resolved
via his first revelation, using the urim and thummim: God had foreseen the problem ,
and he was to translate the parallel plates of Nephi! Soon other revelations flowed
like a torrent, commanding recalcitrants, solving problems, revealing new teachings,
and organizing the church. By the end of the Missouri era, the revelations had
slowed to a trickle. Important doctrines were now taught via sermons or secretly
revealed. Hierarchical authority replaced charismatic power.
Chiefly during the later prophetic period and all through the last period,
most distinctive Mormon doctrines emerged. There were three primary areas of
1. God and Man. Beginning with a clue from his Hebrew studies (i.e.,
elohim was a plural form), Joseph Smith developed the concept of a plurality of gods.
Beginning with his scientific readings (Thomas Dick, Philosophy of a Future State).
he embraced the idea of a multitude of populated solar systems. In the end, he had
departed radically from his starting point: matter, spirit, and intelligence are
eternal. God is a material, anthropomorphic being and was the first, organizing
spirit. All other spirits (gods in embryo) are not as far along the chain of eternal
progression. All human beings pre-existed in a spirit world, and this life is a
probationary period which determines their future degree of exaltation.
2. Temple Ritual. From simple endowment rites at Kirtland—in itself a
the Temple ritual evolved dramatically at Nauvoo. The Book of Mormon notwithstanding,
Joseph Smith had become a master of the Nauvoo lodge. Borrowing freely from
Masonic ritual, an elaborate package of anointings, washings (with veiled phallic
overtones), sealings, special garments, grips, passwords, mysteries, and dramatic
enactments was created by Joseph Smith. All this was connected with his new
theology of celestial marriage and proxy baptism for the dead.
3. Marriage and Family. Although intimated as early as a secret 1831
and informally practiced at Kirtland, polygamy came into its own—secretly—at
Nauvoo. Why? It was connected with Joseph's new theology of eternal progression.
Waiting spirits needed tabernacles. And all eternity would be spent propagating
universes, so progress could be accelerated via polygamy in this life (with wives sealed
to a man for eternity: more accelerated glorification in the hereafter). But more
mundane reasons were also at work. Marital discontent, the problem of separated
spouses, the antinomina tendencies of an absolute ruler within his community,
adoring hero worship among young women, and his own wandering eye all played a
role in Joseph's development of the doctrine of plural marriage.
These major developments were accompanied by a host of minor ones.
environmental conditions and Joseph's imagination played their parts respectively.
Areas of change included:—
—Communitarianism: embraced at Kirtland under Sidney Rigdon's influence and
later abandoned as a failure.
—Gadianton Band prohibitions reversed: secret rites and teachings, the Danite
Band, the lodge in Nauvoo, the political kingdom of God.
—Racial teachings (see below).
—-Millennial teachings (see below).
—-Tithing to replace the Law of Consecration.
—The Word of Wisdom formulated under Temperance/Health pressures from Emma and
—Church organization: from democratic lay priesthood to an elaborate hierarchy.
—Church name: from Church of Christ, to Church of the Latter-day Saints, to
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
—New view of heaven and hell: away from the Book of Mormon toward universalism,
eternal progression, and a material paradise.
—Restriction of the charismata: now focused in the authoritative President of the
This process of evolutionary development is illustrated by early
millennialism and early Mormon racial beliefs and practices.
Millennialism. Mormon millennialism is a classic example of Joseph
creative eclecticism. He absorbed the prevalent postmillennialism, the nascent
premillennialism, and the American nationalism of his day and fused them into a
A preliminary qualification needs to be made. The expression "Kingdom of
had a variety of nuances in Joseph Smith's thought: the conventional metaphors
(heaven or the church), the priesthood's authority, the city of Zion (either localized
or spreading over the world), and the political kingdom of God.
Joseph managed to create a unique view of history:
1) Christ's coming to be premillennlal: the Second Advent to usher in the millennium.
It will be preceded by signs and wonders. This age will end cataclysmicaly, and the
kingdoms of this world will be overturned.
2) But at the same time important postmillennial elements are present:
there will be
a gradual increase in righteousness as the Saints labor to create the necessary
preconditions for Christ's return. For a time, the future kingdom and the departing
worldly kingdoms will co-exist side-by-side. Human effort is essential to ushering
in the millennium. Zion must be built.
3) The whole scheme is tremendously American . The old world
models are obsolete. The locale of the world's creation, the fall, part of Christ's
ministry, and the judgment is America. The new scripture is American; America's
true religious heritage is Mormonism. The American political model resembles the
The nearness of the millennium was a key tenet of early Mormonism. Joseph
both absorbed and capitalized on the Burned-over District's rampant millennial
expectations. Martin Harris and W. W. Phelps freely predicted Christ would return
in the 1840s. Chronological computations bolstered such beliefs (akin to Millerism).
The Book of Mormon itself predicted it would come forth in the latter-days.
Converts were urged to flee to Zion to escape the coming tribulation. The Millennial
Star and Signs of the Times (and Joseph in his diary) noted signs of the times such as
European revolutions. South Carolina's secession threat, natural calamities,
heavenly portents, and the "gathering" of the Lamanites and Jews. But unlike
Millerism, Mormon millennialism was not crushed with a Great Disappointment:
first, because Joseph Smith was careful never to issue a revelation setting an official
date; and, second, because Mormonism established a place and a program instead of
a timetable. Zion was something to build or to gather to.
The Book of Mormon was ambiguous concerning the whole subject of
Aside from believing time was short, Joseph apparently had not worked out his views.
The first important development came in December 1830. The lost prophecy of Enoch
revealed that the city of Zion was to be built by the Saints. The heavenly city of
Enoch would then descend in millennial greetings. During the Kirtland period,
Sidney Rigdon's wishes were overridden. It was revealed that Zion was in the west
(the boundary of the Lamanites), and soon it was discovered that Jackson County was
the spot. The Saints were to gather there in preparation. Cooperative social life
was inaugurated in anticipation. The Saints were promised an eternal inheritance in
the coming kingdom. The Temple lot was laid out in Zion: the center stake in a great
tent with a host of lesser stakes soon to spread over all America and the globe!
Alas, Gentile hostility uprooted the stake in Zion in 1833. A new departure
Mormon thinking about the kingdom of God was Zion's Camp (1834), a Moses-like
attempt to deliver Zion with a mighty hand. This rescue attempt ended in failure in
the face of superior force, but the theme would be picked up again in the Danite Band
and the Nauvoo Legion, viz ., Zion must be defended with military force.
Far West (1838) saw some brief attempts to establish the kingdom. A new
site was selected, and the Danites were organized.
But it was in the sanctuary of Nauvoo that Joseph Smith's millennial
reached their fullest flower. Here a new temple was commenced, and the plat of
Zion was laid out. Here the Mormons—with their special charter concession from
the Illinois legislature—were a virtual state within a state. Joseph dreamed great
dreams of empire. His unrestrained imagination ran wild (and eventually betrayed him).
Here he was mayor, chief judge. Lt. general, real estate agent, storekeeper, chief
mason, architect, prophet, presidential candidate, and king of the kingdom of God!
In 1842 the secret revelation was given concerning the political kingdom of
In 1844 the Council of Fifty was established, and Joseph was crowned king, all in
secret, of course. This was the apex of Joseph's millennial thought. The original
idea had been modified by his imagination into a unique creation. It included:
1) A secular government (the Council of Fifty) to rule over the world in secular matters
just as the church would rule in spiritual matters. To preserve the fiction of church-
state separation, a few nominal Gentiles were included among the Fifty (actually
deliberately unbaptized believers). The Council was the legislative, executive, and
judicial branches of government rolled into one.
2) The same president presided over both Church and Council.
3) In the absence of Christ, his royal prerogatives were to be exercised by a human
king (contra the Book of Mormon on republican government).
4) Christ's constitution was established, probably resembling that of Deseret.
"His Laws" were established, e.g., polygamy and blood atonement.
Joseph's dreams of empire overreached themselves. When, in June 1844,
Nauvoo Expositor began revealing the secrets of the kingdom, Joseph ordered it
destroyed. This unleashed a torrent of anti-Mormon forces, and, twenty days later,
Joseph was lynched. The Mormon idea of the Kingdom lived on, however.
J. J. Strang established a miniature kingdom on Beaver Island, and Brigham Young
secretly established the Kingdom in Utah.
Racial Views and Practices. If Mormon millennial beliefs reveal Joseph
as a creative genius, whose teachings shaped the Mormon environment, his racial
teachings show how the environment shaped Mormonism.
1) Indians. From his environment, Joseph Smith absorbed the popular
the burial mounds, palisades, and artifacts of western New York and Ohio were
evidence that a great civilization of peaceful artisan-farmers had once flourished,
only to be exterminated in a great conflagration by the savage ancestors of the
contemporary Indians. Men as prominent as William Henry Harrison and DeWitt Clinton
held such views. More importantly, the local newspapers around Palmyra published
such views. This was the original inspiration for the Book of Mormon. To local
legend, Joseph affixed the popular Hebraic origins theory of the Indians. Links
between Indians and Hebrews were thought to include language, customs, and belief
in the Great Spirit. Roger Williams, Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, and William
Penn believed in this theory. Contemporary expositions by Elias Boudinot (A Star in
the West, 1815), Israel Worsley, Josiah Priest, and Ethan Smith (A View of the
Hebrews, 1823) further popularized it. Numerous parallels exist between Ethan
Smith's work (which included material on the burial mounds and Central American
ruins, following Alexander von Humboldt) and the Book of Mormon. A few of these
—Migration of Hebrews via ship to America.
—Frequent mention of the destruction of Jerusalem.
—Frequent citation of Isaiah.
—Prophets among the Indians.
—Quetzacoati as a type of Christ-(actual appearance of Christ in the Book of Mormon).
Of course, Joseph did not write a history of the lost Ten Tribes, but only
Lehi's (Ephraimite) family fleeing Jerusalem in 600 A.D., and their descendants, the
warring Lamanites andNephites.
To these derivative ideas, Joseph Smith added the idea that the Indians'
color was the result of a divine curse (another derivative idea, applied to the Indians).
According to the Book of Mormon, the Lamanites were cursed for their wickedness and
marked with a darkened skin to separate them from their righteous brethren the
Nephites. However, this curse was not permanent, for, in the latter days, they would
become a "white and delightsome people. " (This again was not an uncommon idea.
Assimilated, "civilized" Indians were reported to grow whiter.) Furthermore,
darkened skin was no barrier to church fellowship. Lamanites were actively
missionized. Their "gathering" (courtesy of the Federal government) west of
Missouri was held to be in preparation for the millennium centered at nearby Zion.
2. Negroes. The Book of Mormon was an Indian saga. It makes no mention
Negroes. However, in its teaching about skin color it presaged later doctrine about
blacks. Both nationally and for the Saints, Negro slavery was to become a vital
issue in the 1830s. In 1831 it was revealed that Zion was to be built in Jackson
County, Missouri. Soon the northern-born Saints were gathering at Zion. Resentments
between Saints and old settlers were not long in coming on many counts: religious,
social, economic, political, and racial. The old settlers—mainly southern-born—
resented the Saints' attitude toward the Indians. But far more, they feared that these
Yankees would engage in "slave tampering." Such rumors spread widely in 1832, and
Joseph Smith's Dec. 25, 1832 revelation of impending Civil War (replete with slave
uprisings) received hostile notice In Missouri. When, In July 1833, editor W. W,
Phelps printed an article, "Free People of Color, in the Independece-based
Evening and Morning Star, the situation exploded. Phelps had unwisely quoted the
Missouri statute requiring free blacks to bring citizenship papers when entering
Missouri, hinted that slavery would someday be abolished, and implied that the church
permitted free blacks to hold membership. A mob razed the Star's press and
forced the Saints out of Jackson County, fearing that Phelps had intended his article
as a set of instructions for free black Mormon immigrants.
At this time there were at least two free black Mormons at Kirtland: Elijah
and a certain Black Pete. There were no racial restrictions on membership, in
keeping with Joseph Smith's basic Arminian stance that each individual must freely
choose righteousness. Such a policy posed no danger in New York or Ohio. But now
the Saints in Missouri were threatened. Joseph's initial reaction was to declare
slavery wrong in a fit of hotheaded New England anger (a revelation in December 1833).
But the visit to Missouri at the head of Zion's Camp impressed him with
precariousness of the Saints' situation in Missouri. Changes in policy and doctrine
were soon forthcoming:
1. Missionaries in the South were instructed not to baptize slaves without their
masters' permission and not to confer the priesthood under any circumstances.
2. Abolitionism was condemned.
3. Joseph wrote a "Biblical defense" of slavery in the Mormon press.
4. The Book of Abraham (1835) explicitly espoused priesthood denial to blacks.
All this must be seen against the background of Missouri troubles, for once
Saints were safely in Illinois, Joseph changed his tune.
Joseph in two earlier inspired documents had applied the skin color-curse
blacks. In December 1830, the prophecy of Enoch embraced the theory that the
"mark of Cain" was a dark skin. And in 1831/32 his inspired translation of Genesis
interpolated the datum that the "curse on Canaan" was a "veil of darkness. " All this
was nothing more than standard racist exegesis of the common variety, the same sort
embodied in the Book of Mormon with regards Indians without any discriminatory
ecclesiastical practices resulting therefrom. But one fatal passage in the Book of
Abraham changed all that. Joseph wrote that Noah's son Ham was married to
Egyptus, a descendent of Cain, and through her the curse survived the Flood.
From Egyptus sprang the pharaohs who "would fain claim the priesthood. " But no
black man could ever hold the priesthood, because the black race was cursed.
(Later Mormon teaching related this to misconduct during pre-existence which
resulted in being born into the Negro race.) Anti-Negro policy—adopted to assuage
Missourians' fears—was now translated into Mormon dogma. Blacks were denied
After the Mormon War and expulsion from Caldwell County, Missouri, the
settled in Nauvoo. Here Joseph Smith had the freedom to express his true sentiments:—
—Contrary to the Book of Abraham, Elijah Abel—Joseph's personal friend—was ordained
a Seventy in 1842 (a very high position). Joseph did not trouble himself about
consistency as much as some of his later disciples.
—His slavery plank for the 1844 presidential campaign proposed abolition by 1850,
with slaveholders reimbursed from public land sale proceeds.
—In various conversations he expressed the notions that the Missouri Compromise
had been a mistaken compromise with slavery and that given an improved environment,
blacks would be culturally indistinguishable from whites.
The free air of Illinois allowed Joseph to reveal his true New England
Unfortunately he left a written legacy, the product of an earlier environment.
3. Jews. Joseph Smith expressed a few unusual ideas about Jews, e.g., that
lost Ten Tribes dwelt near the North Pole with John the Revelator, or that converted
Saints received a spiritual "blood transfusion" from the Holy Ghost, becoming literal
children of Abraham, the Gentile blood being purged away. All branches of Israel, he
held, must be regathered prior to the Millennium: the Jews to Palestine and the
Lamanites and Lost Ten Tribes to the North American Zion.
By and large, then, Mormon racial views and practices can be traced
environmental sources, with a relatively small number of creative innovations on
Similar analyses could be produced of most of Joseph Smith's doctrinal developments.
There was a dynamic creative interplay of social environment and creative mental
energy. Mormonism's history is inseparable from that of its founder.