Joseph Smith, Jr. as a Warrior Prophet: Messianic Warlordism in Times of State Fragmentation, Economic Disruption and Religious Upheaval

In 1986, in the midst of a violent conflict between the newly installed Museveni government and remnants of the former regime, Alice Auma, a spirit-diviner in northern Uganda believed she was commanded by a Christian spirit called ‘Lakwena’ to lead a military-religious rebellion on behalf of the northern Acholi people and bring about heaven on earth. She claimed:

The good Lord who had sent the Lakwena decided to change his work from that of a doctor to that of a military commander for one simple reason: it is useless to cure a man today only that he be killed the next. So it became an obligation on his part to stop the bloodshed before continuing his work as a doctor.

Alice Auma, assuming the name Alice Lakwena, led a insurgency against the new government, known as the Holy Spirit Movement, which had several early victories before being defeated by the new Ugandan Army. (For more information on Alice Auma/Lakwena and the Holy Spirit Movement, see this book or this article).

Alice Lakwena, as a religio-military commander, stands in a long tradition of Warrior Prophets that extend as far back as Joan of Arc, Guru Gobind SinghMohammed and King David. Warrior Prophets have been particularly prominant in modern Sub-Saharan Africa, associated with guerilla movements in, for example, Zimbabwe and Sudan. In areas of the world where political authority is fragmented and the state does not have a monopoly on the use of violence, savvy and consummate ‘political entrepreneurs’ take advantage of their ability to wield violence to rise to power (and often prosperity) by offering security to people willing to accept their authority and punishing those who are unwilling to do so (For further information, see this book on warlordism in Africa, or this one on Afghanistan). Likewise, Paul Gifford, a scholar of African Christianity, has argued that charismatic and dogmatic religion provides believers with a sense of stability as Africa faces great social, political and economic upheavals in its encounter with modernity.  Warrior Prophets are thus able to capitalize on the dual opportunities created by chaos — people’s perceived needs for 1) a powerful, paternalistic protector and 2) a charismatic diviner who is able to provide assurance of cosmic certainty. They offer the promise of both physical and spiritual security.

It may be enlightening to understand Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of both the Mormon and Community of Christ churches, as having played a similar role in mid-19th century America. His time was one of great political, social and economic upheaval.

As a charismatic, ‘magical’ leader, Smith provided divine explanations for the social disruption of the industrial revolution and chaos of the frontier. As people lived short, nasty and brutish lives in the swamps of Nauvoo, Illinois, he claimed that people could become gods and that a mighty kingdom would be establish on the banks of the Mississippi. Like Alice Auma, he promised the coming of heaven on earth. To his followers, the trials of mid-19th century life were thus not simply the result of hard times — they were divinely ordained signs of great things to come.

In addition to promising answers to existential questions, Joseph Smith also arrogated himself to the position of a military leader in the Missouri Mormon War and later formed a 5,000-person strong militia in Nauvoo. Tellingly, Smith provided numerous depictions of Warrior Prophets in the Book of Mormon, notably characters like NephiMormon and Moroni. Smith claimed to offer his supporters security in the chaos of the American frontier, where there were only nascent state institutions and a pervasive vigilantism.

However, the security offered by Warrior Prophets is often ephemeral. Warrior Prophets can actually become a source of insecurity, even for their own followers. Firstly, this is because messianism is likely to lead to hubris and provocation of much more powerful institutions. For example, if Mullah Omar had kept his Taliban a relatively humble and local movement, and turned away links with transnational Islamist movements, he would not have provoked the wrath of the US security apparatus. Secondly, the ardent devotion inspired in their followers is often interpreted as a deeply disturbing threat by other nonbelievers. Thirdly, tempted by megalomania, Warrior Prophets may concentrate authority in themselves, becoming ever more detached from reality. For example, following the defeat of the Holy Spirit Movement, a splinter group called the Lord’s Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony (who claims to have inherited the spirit of Lakwena from Alice Auma), has become a watchword for bizarre and brutal violence in the region spanning northern Uganda, southern Sudan and eastern DR Congo. Kony is a source of insecurity even to his own troops, the majority of whom are forcibly abducted.

While Joseph Smith Jr. never reached the levels of madness and psychosis of Kony, he too actually made his followers more insecure, through provocation of surrounding communities. Indeed, the early Mormons were displaced far more than ordinary settlers on the frontier. Counter-intuitively, this heightened insecurity may have actually increased some church members’ dependency on Joseph Smith and his equally war-like successor Brigham Young.

Interestingly, many of the early members of the Community of Christ were those who had been nervous with the militarist direction taken by Joseph Smith, Jr. Indeed, the transition to his son, Joseph Smith III, the first president of the Community of Christ was a classic case of Weber’s transition from charismatic to bureaucratic authority. Joseph Smith III embodied a pragmatic, unobtrusive and significantly less provocative style of leadership than his father. He thus offered a very different approach to security for his followers — that of assimilation and non-provocation of the surrounding population.

-Matthew Bolton

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6 comments on “Joseph Smith, Jr. as a Warrior Prophet: Messianic Warlordism in Times of State Fragmentation, Economic Disruption and Religious Upheaval

  1. James E Elliott says:

    What acts or teachings of Joseph Smith Jr. could be described as “levels of madness”

    • Matthew Bolton says:

      When a person claims to have spoken with angels, to have been told by God that he should marry multiple women, that he could become a God himself, runs for US president when he has no chance of winning and destroys the printing press of people who disagree with him, it is not unreasonable to consider the possibility of megalomania.

      That said, as Foucault argued, madness is partly a social construction, not simply an objective psychiatric condition (http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/madnessandciv/summary.html). Indeed, people who says things that radically differ from the social norms are often labelled as mad — demonstrated brutally in the former Soviet Union (http://www.amazon.com/Dissidents-Madness-Soviet-Brezhnev-Vladimir/dp/9042025859). Indeed, in ancient Greece, certain kinds of madness were considered divine, as they were creative, mystical and allowed insight into the transcendent that were inaccessible to those stuck in the mundane and rational world. As Socrates said, “The highest goods come to us in the manner of the mania.” (http://books.google.com/books?id=U0_AHDaxqKQC&dq)

  2. TH says:

    Matthew,

    Sounds like you think Joseph Smith Jr was a megalomaniac. There are a lot of people who would agree with you and a lot who wouldn’t. It’s a controversial topic as you know. Do you think that the Community of Christ gives too much allegiance to JSJr and want to warn people about that? In the places I have visited I have hardly seen much status given to JSJr. Maybe your experience with the church is different.

    What I have always liked about him is that he was willing to risk having an intimate relationship with God, speaking prophetically, and inspiring other people to get to know God in a way that hadn’t been tried before. Of course my theology is quite different from his.

    One of the things I like about our church, Matthew, is that people can have diverse things about things. I think that whenever we try to eradicate other peoples’ views, (especially using a divine rationale for doing), so we are on very risky territory, whether that is Joseph trying to stop printing material that disagreed with him, the government silencing opposition, unnecessary violence, or the church telling people what the correct stance on an issue is…likewise, we have to be true to the best of our abilities about how God’s Spirit directs us.

    However, I really like the phrase “Warrior Prophet” that you have chosen. A lot of the Bible prophets were warrior prophets, so he is in good company there (Not to mention those in the Book of Mormon).

    I was a little concerned that you used seeing angels as evidence of him being mentally disturbed. I’m trained in psychology, so I get the hallucinations/delusions argument that I think you are trying to make, but I certainly hope that you haven’t ruled out angels. Otherwise, the whole aaronic priesthood is out of luck, as they’re given special dispensation to handle angelic ministry.

  3. James E Elliott says:

    Re Joseph lll, after Brigham Young met young Jseph in Utah, he commented that the LDS had nothing to fear from him. Brigham recognized that young Joseph was not a warrior prophet. But he was sufficiently prophetic to satisfy my parents.

    James E Elliott

  4. Morgan Deane says:

    I’m sorry to inform you that your analysis comparing Joseph Smith to various warlords is based on shallow reasoning and a misunderstanding of American Military History and the History of the LDS Church. I address this topic in great detail here: http://mormonwar.blogspot.com/2009/08/military-mind-of-joseph-smith.html

    In short, the military mind needed to write the martial narratives the Book of Mormon is not seen anywhere in Smith’s actions, writings, or words.

    • Matthew Bolton says:

      I have just read the post you link to. In considering Jos. Smith’s military ‘success’ or ‘failure’, it is important to think carefully about what how ‘victory’ or ‘defeat’ is defined. That is a military ‘failure’ can actually sometimes be a political or economic success for the protagonist.

      It is helpful to look, for instance at the work of William Reno http://www.amazon.com/Warlord-Politics-African-States-William/dp/1555878830 and David Keen http://www.amazon.com/Conflict-Collusion-Sierra-Leone-David/dp/085255883X/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1253594057&sr=1-3

      Both Keen and Reno show that sometimes warlords avoid ‘winning’ conflicts in the classic Clauswitzian sense, because losing — or remaining in a perpetually unstable stalemate — can be more advantageous politically or economically. For instance, by keeping your constituents constantly insecure, they are less likely to question your rule. Some have argued that the ‘War on Terror’ played this role for the Bush Administration — ‘winning’ the ‘War on Terror’ would have been less useful politically than keeping it at a constantly low level, enabling the electorate to be more easily manipulated by fear.

      And vice versa. The potential political costs of winning a war can be demonstrated by the first George Bush or Winston Churchill. Once the war was over, electorates figured a wartime leader was no longer necessary.

      That is a long digression, but my point is that Jos. Smith’s seemingly lack of military prowess may actually be an indicator of political prowess. It is possible that by keeping members in a constant state of flux and insecurity, they grew more loyal to him. The scholar (and now Canadian politician) Michael Ignatieff has talked about the tendency for ethnic groups to solidify and become more exclusive “communities of fear” during wartime.

      In short, Jos. Smith may not have been an effective military strategist in the classical sense. But the explanatory power of classical military strategy only goes so far when faced with the far more complex politico-military conflict and collusion games that occur in areas of fragmented political authority. In such situations war is less like a football game and more like a game, with three or four teams, players playing for multiple sides simultaneously and referees who make calls according to the highest bidder.

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