2005: History Joseph Smith Assigned to Himself / Richard Bushman

Dr. Richard Bushman, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a highly-regarded scholar, has recently been selected for the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at the Claremont Graduate School. This means that he is already in the Los Angeles area, and we will have many opportunities to interact with him. Congratulations, Richard!

The exciting thing about Dr. Bushman’s scholarly work is that it meets the standards of scholarship in the fields of history and religious studies in describing Joseph Smith the man, and is still faithful and appreciative of Joseph Smith the prophet. His most recent book, (see at Amazon.com) Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, shows Joseph in all his human traits and failings, and shows how that interacted with his calling as a prophet. We know Joseph better, and appreciate him more as touchable, reachable, struggling human being (like the rest of us), still performing the Lord’s work and bringing about the Lord’s purposes. I love the book.

When I am talking with other Christians and with other Latter-day Saints about Joseph and introducing them to Dr. Bushman’s book, I always discuss with them and give them a copy of what I am including in this blog posting. Is the second half of his presentation at the Joseph Smith Symposium at the Library of Congress in 2005. It depicts Joseph’s gradual discovery, in his religious conversion, seerstone gazing, receiving to Book of Mormon and discovering biblical prophecies about himself, and finally the stories in the Book of Mormon, people who had his combination of roles as seer, translator, and prophet.

Thanks much,
Steve St.Clair

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The History Joseph Smith Assigned to Himself
Richard Bushman
The Worlds of Joseph Smith, Library of Congress, 2005

To what history did Joseph attach himself? By the time he wrote his 1838 history, he had settled the question and was able to speak confidently about his early development. He smoothly blended his beginnings in Vermont and New York (his American origins) with his call to be a prophet, translator, and church founder (his biblical history). His development seemed easy and natural by then, but it may not have been so easy at the time. As I imagine Joseph Smith, the search for his own history was more arduous than he later let on. For a number of years, Joseph did not know who he was, that is, which history he belonged to. Not until he translated the Book of Mormon did his place in history become clear.

Judging from his own account, Joseph was less in control of his life than most believed. The way he told his story, things happened to him outside of his own initiative. He saw himself as a passive recipi­ent of what he called “marvelous experience[s]” whose meanings were not clear at first.” Consider three of his early experiences: the First Vision, the discovery of the seer stones, and the command to translate the plates. These three constitute what Jan Shipps has called “the Prophet puzzler In a 1974 essay, Shipps said historians must rec­oncile the apparently contradictory themes in Joseph’s early years—his visionary life as a budding prophet versus his seerstone gazing as a young treasure-seeker.’ I suggest this conflict may have been as much a puzzle to Joseph Smith as it has been to later historians.

Present-day Mormons can scarcely imagine Joseph’s initial con­fusion about the First Vision’s importance because we see so clearly in retrospect that the vision initiated Joseph’s life as a prophet. What was he to make of the appearance of two heavenly beings when he was fourteen? Judging from his first written account, composed in 1832, he understood the vision primarily as a personal conversion. It was an event in the history of revivals. We must remember that Joseph was surrounded by incessant preaching for what was called the New Birth. The evangelical ministry’s aim was to convict hearers of their sins, bring them to see their helplessness, and teach them to rely on Christ alone. Exposed to this kind of preaching, Joseph worried about his sins, perhaps concerned all the more because he was unable to undergo the usual emotional conversion. According to his 1832 account, he was, like the other revival subjects, concerned for “the welfare of my immortal Soul;’ by which he meant he felt “con­victed of my sins,” the term used by revival preachers. In the vision, the first words he heard from the Lord assured Joseph “thy sins are forgiven thee”‘

Coming out of the grove, Joseph had every reason to think that he had undergone a particularly dramatic New Birth experience, like hundreds of others in his neighborhood. As a sign of his confusion, his first reaction was to consult a minister to verify the validity of what happened. Why would a person who had just been informed that “those professors were all corrupt” immediately turn to a clergy­man for guidance? He went because new converts customarily vis­ited a minister. Because mere emotion might have overtaken them rather than the grace of God, the experience had to be checked out. In Joseph’s case, the clergyman treated the story with contempt. He told Joseph his conversion was of the devil—that he was no better than all the other visionaries of his time who were visited by angels and carried into heaven to see Christ. According to the minister, the First Vision was not a true vision or a New Birth but an illusion. Such visions were common enough to anger clergymen, who saw them as counterfeit religion, diverting people from the serious business of acknowledging their sins and accepting Christ.

The minister’s response left Joseph puzzled and frustrated. What was the vision? An expert in the field of religion had told him he was deluded. Was he merely one more misguided visionary? As late as 1838, when he wrote the story, he felt the frustration of a thwarted religious spirit. He was told to forget it, yet he knew what he had experienced. “I had actually seen a light,” he wrote, “and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me; and though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true” (Joseph Smith-History 1:25). He could not deny the vision’s reality, but what did it mean? If not a conversion, as he had been told, what was it? He could not yet explain where it fit in the history of religion.

Two years later, in 1822, another marvel was thrust upon him. He discovered he had the ability to look into a stone and see things otherwise invisible to natural eyes. He had two seer stones, the ori­gin of one being uncertain, the other found in a well. Martin Harris described the stone, as did David Whitmer and Emma and many others close to him. Apparently Joseph used the stone to find lost objects. He may have considered the knack an amusing diversion, but his father and others in the neighborhood wanted his help in finding lost treasure. For four or five years, they pressed him into service. Dan Vogel argues that Joseph planned to make a career out of treasure seeking, but I see him compelled by his cash-poor father and the enthusiasm of the money-digging neighbors into activities he did not enjoy. A year after finding the stone, Joseph was told by the angel to cut his ties with the treasure seekers, and three years later, even his father understood that Joseph was to use his powers for higher purposes.’ Joseph knew his future did not lie with the treasure seekers, yet he had a gift for looking into a stone and seeing. Was the gift from God? Did it have a higher pur­pose? Was he a treasure seeker with a place in the history of magic, or something greater?

In 1823, Joseph Smith underwent the most perplexing experience of all. According to his own story, another heavenly visitor told him he was to translate an ancient record inscribed on gold plates. In this case, there were no conceivable precedents, no history of any kind to attach himself to. He had no committee of scholars assigned by King James to translate the Bible. He was not the learned Champollion cracking the Egyptian code on the Rosetta Stone. He was a poorly educated rural visionary who had never heard of gold plates with ancient histories inscribed on them or of partially literate young men translating. Where in sacred or secular history was there a precedent for an unlearned translator? Joseph was sailing in uncharted waters.

As he turned eighteen, these three marvelous experiences—the First Vision, the seer stones, and the command to translate—bestowed upon Joseph Smith an incomprehensible mixture of possible identi­ties with only perplexing or indiscernible histories to explain them.’ Groping his way and following the instructions of the angel, Joseph took possession of the plates in 1827 and began the baffling task of translating. In the early stages, the seer stone experience may have sustained him. His first reaction when he received the Urim and Thummim was to tell Joseph Knight, “They are marvelous; I can see anything.”‘ Seeing lost objects in a stone had prepared him to look into the Urim and Thummim and see words. But still there was no history of unlearned translation, no known events to which he could attach himself, no way to secure an identity from past experience.

Joseph Smith must have been immensely relieved to hear about Martin Harris’s visit to Charles Anthon. Joseph did not show much interest in the professor’s opinion of the characters or the translation, but he was thrilled to recognize the fulfillment of a Bible prophecy. Someone—whether Harris or Joseph or someone else—discovered that Anthon’s reply to Harris corresponded to a biblical prophecy. Joseph Smith’s history explains how Anthon’s response “I cannot read a sealed book” conformed to the prophecy in Isaiah 29 that says the unlearned would read a book the learned could not read (Joseph Smith-History 1:64-65). At last a tiny thread tied Joseph to the Bible. If the Bible prophesied his work, he had a history. His unlearned translation had been foreseen.

But it was the Book of Mormon itself, the book Joseph was trans­lating, that finally clarified his identity. The Book of Mormon pro­vided Joseph his long-sought history. Joseph must have been excited to translate Ammon’s conversation with the Lamanite King Limhi about King Mosiah. When asked to translate the records of the Jaredites, Ammon said he had no such powers, but he knew some­one who did. King Mosiah had an instrument, two stones, which he looked into and translated. Mosiah was a seer and a prophet also, and no greater gift than this existed, Ammon said (Mosiah 8:6-18). In Mosiah, Joseph found a kindred soul with a similar configuration of powers: seer stones, translation, and prophethood.

But the Book of Mormon offered more than Mosiah’s example. It created a world history in which Joseph’s set of powers played a critical part. One of the dominant historical structures in the Book of Mormon is the history of Israel. Nephi and Jacob rehearse Israel’s story a half dozen times, and Christ repeats it during his visit to the Nephites. It is the story familiar from Isaiah and other Hebrew prophets: Israel covenanted with God; Israel has strayed from God; Israel will be forgiven and restored as God’s favored people in the last days. The story is as persistent in the Book of Mormon as it is in the Bible.

The Book of Mormon, however, gives the familiar story a par­ticular twist. The Israel of the Book of Mormon extends far beyond Israel in Palestine, the familiar homeland. The Book of Mormon speaks for scattered Israel, spread around the globe (1 Nephi 22:3-5). The Nephites’ story begins with a departure from the Holy Land. Whereas the Israelites in the Bible always returned to the Promised Land, the Book of Mormon people headed for a new promised land, never to return. The Book of Mormon puts Israel on a world stage. It is a book about Israel in dispersion. Isaiah mentions Israel on the “isles of the sea” once; Nephi uses the term nine times.” Isaiah’s “isles of the sea” phrase was assurance that God knew the dispersed Nephites, that they were still Israel, and that they had a place in God’s plans, though far from their homeland. Later in the Book of Mormon, Christ says he will visit scattered Israel just as he visited the Nephites in America.” Overall, the Book of Mormon reorients biblical geog­raphy. It tells Israel’s story from the margins and the isles of the sea, rather than from the heartland. The Book of Mormon is the story of Israel’s diaspora.

And that is where Joseph Smith’s particular configuration of gifts comes in. Scattered Israel kept records. According to the Book of Mormon, there is not one Bible but many bibles, each telling the story of a branch of Israel, as Mormon’s history tells of the remnant of Jacob in the New World. All of these records are vital to the gather­ing of Israel and have to be translated. When the branches of Israel come together, so will their records?’ The Book of Mormon even provides instruments for performing this vital task. Mosiah trans­lated the records of the Jaredites, as the Book of Mormon says, “by the means of those two stones which were fastened into the two rims of a bow” (Mosiah 28:13). When the Lord gave the brother of Jared a vision written in a language no one understood, he also received “two stones” to seal up with the plates which “shall magnify to the eyes of men these things which ye shall write” (Ether 3:23-24).” The Book of Mormon’s version of Israel’s history calls for a translator who works with stones.33

Joseph stood at the center of this history of the world. He was to translate the records of Israel in America, which are in turn to assure the House of Israel everywhere “that they are not cast off for­ever” (title page, Book of Mormon). In translating the records, the puzzle of three disparate identities of his early life—visionary, seer, and translator—was resolved. As the revelation at the organization of the church said, “Behold, there shall be a record kept among you; and in it thou shalt be called a seer, a translator, a prophet” (Doctrine and Covenants 21:1).

The Book of Mormon gave what Harold Bloom would call a “strong reading” of scripture, an interpretation loyal to the original but decisive in its departures. The Book of Mormon turned Israel’s story into global history. By striking out for the New World, the Book of Mormon prophets spread Israel across the earth. From that global perspective, a new set of phenomena resulted: scattered rem­nants, additional records, the requirement of translation, the need for translation instruments, and lastly, a prophet-translator. Joseph’s seemingly haphazard collection of possible identities cohered into a providential design. His own revelation supplied him with a perti­nent history, making him the ultimate self-made, or from his point of view, God-made man.

Once Joseph began translating the Book of Mormon his con­fidence soared. In 1828 after the first n6 pages were completed, he began writing revelations that would later comprise the Doctrine and Covenants. Initially it took courage to believe his own revela­tions, but by 1828 he believed the promptings of the Spirit. He trusted the inspired words enough to organize a church, send missionaries to find a site for the New Jerusalem, and call people to gather—all on the basis of his revelations. In 1831 according to one account, he strode into the Newel Whitney store in Kirtland, Ohio, and announced himself as Joseph the Prophet. It was a hard-won identity that he embraced confidently once the Book of Mormon revealed to him who he was.

As we address the meaning of Joseph Smith in the twenty-first century, such complex interweavings of experience, text, and history must figure in our narratives. Whatever we think about the origins of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s revelations, all of us, critics and believers alike, must take into account the Prophet’s self-under­standing. Our stories of him must comprehend his story of himself—not an easy task. Could this uneducated, unpracticed, twenty-three­year-old have devised the whole intricate narrative on his own? New York farmers did not ordinarily come up with histories of scattered Israel and translating stones. It is doubtful that a purely American his­tory of the Mormon prophet will explain him. His mind ranged far beyond his own time and place, and we will have to follow if we are to understand.” A small history will not account for such a large man.

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1 Comment

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One response to “2005: History Joseph Smith Assigned to Himself / Richard Bushman

  1. c.kraus

    Steve,Do you know a good way we can find out about any speaking engagements of Dr. Bushmans in the LA area (Claremont lecuters open to the public, firesides in Pasadena, etc.)? Will you be posting them on this blog if you come across them? Thanks.

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