Remembering Joseph Smith, Reclaiming a Saint

December 23 is the 204th birthday of the great prophet of the restoration movement, Joseph Smith, Jr. Perhaps it is unfortunate that his birthday is so close to Christmas. One almost feels a bit sacrilegious thinking about Joseph at a time when we remember the birth of Jesus. Nonetheless, if we affirm that God is present and at work with many different peoples (and indeed, I would say, at work with many different religions), we also need to do the hard work of thinking about how God has been at work with us. Appreciating the truths that others have should lead us back into a conversation about why we are true. And that leads us back to Joseph Smith.

What really got me to thinking about this was reading an edited volume Joseph Smith, Jr.: Reappraisals after Two Centuries. I highly recommend this volume. Some of the essays are brilliant, while others, well, leave much to be desired. Nonetheless, several essayists offered reappraisals of Joseph Smith that I thought could be useful for Community of Christ members. And Joseph needs some serious reclamation by members of our tradition. We need to move beyond the stage of adolescent critique that we’ve been stuck in for the last few decades (that stage where we find out that our spiritual parents were not perfect and we act a lot like judgmental teenagers after this revelation) to a more mature appreciation for our ancestors. And Joseph has shaped us in too many ways for us to ignore him.

So, how has Joseph shaped us positively? First, we can acknowledge Joseph as an agent who gave us sacraments whereby we have experienced God’s grace and healing for generations. In the Community of Christ, we have eight sacraments—communion, baptism, confirmation, the blessing of children, marriage, ordination, administration (or the laying on of hands for the sick), marriage, and our one unique sacrament, the evangelist’s blessing. To say that Joseph gave us the sacraments is kind of like saying that Franklin Roosevelt gave us social security. FDR certainly signed it into law and supported it, but it took countless people to pass the program and implement it. And there were other programs in other places of the world that were like social security. FDR did not invent the idea out of thin air. We can think of the sacraments in our church with a similar analogy. They developed long before Joseph’s time, were incorporated into our denomination sometimes directly by him, or sometimes out of previous habit by members. This is the case, for instance, with confirmation, a practice that members did before there was any official rationale for it. But it was Joseph Smith who signed the sacraments into law, if you will, by giving us sections in the Doctrine and Covenants talking about them—words that have helped guide generations of people as to how we express God’s grace through ritual means.

Second, Joseph provided a corrective to some more extreme Protestant assertions that all that mattered was the spirit, not the body or the world. Joseph really got something right when he talked about the gospel of the kingdom being about this world. We call that concept Zion, and at its best, it gives us present resources to talk about this world as sacred. We can’t call Joseph Smith an environmentalist, since that term is anachronistic when applied to someone in the early nineteenth century. But we can appreciate him as one who sees place, space, and bodies as sacred. Listen to Joseph’s rendition of Enoch’s vision in Genesis. At one point, Genesis 7:55-56 in the Inspired Version, the text reads as follows: “And it came to pass, that Enoch looked upon the earth, and he heard a voice from the bowels thereof, saying, Woe! woe! is me, the mother of men! I am pained, I am weary, because of the wickedness of my children! When shall I rest, and be cleansed from the filthiness which has gone forth out of me? When will my Creator sanctify me, that I may rest, and righteousness for a season abide upon my face? And when Enoch heard the earth mourn, he wept, and cried unto the Lord, saying, O Lord, wilt thou not have compassion upon the earth? wilt thou not bless the children of Noah?”

The earth in these verses is groaning—in need of redemption. Thoughtfully (perhaps creatively) interpreted, we have some resources in our own older tradition to talk about creation care, right here. I can’t fully address this last point here—it is for another post and another person who has a background in environmental theology. Nonetheless, I just wanted to lift up the possibility that we have sacred texts from Joseph Smith that can help us express our love and care for God’s creation. There are other points that I could list here (such as Joseph’s role in creating our Community of Christ concept of temple space), but all posts must have an end.

So, how do you celebrate Joseph Smith as a spiritual parent? For you personally, why is he worth remembering?

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24 comments on “Remembering Joseph Smith, Reclaiming a Saint

  1. Doug Gregory says:

    Amen, brother! I look at Joseph Smith, Jr as I do at all prophets – he was human, flawed, and a genuine gift to many. His spiritual insights were nothing short of amazing, and just before I logged onto this sight, I was re-reading one of my very favorite scriptures, D&C 90:5, which coincides nicely with your reference from Genesis.

    Part salesman, part self-focused (especially after his horrible physical mistreatments), part saint, and one amazing man. Even with all of his flaws (I’m glad historians aren’t counting mine), he remains to me a highly-influential guide and leader, one who could bring revelation that chastised himself. My family goes all the way back to Palmyra, and I never have quit holding Joseph Smith, Jr up as a prophet of God. I just stopped looking at him as the 4th member of the godhead.

  2. Thank God for that! I never held Joseph Smith as a fourth member of the Godhead since I don’t accept the concept of a trinity or Godhead anyhow.

    I think the thing that galls me about Joseph Smith is that because of the way the restoration movement has viewed him, I thought of him as a true prophet. I haven’t thought of him that way in years and years. I resent the romance history our people (and the LDS) have written for years. I just want him to be seen as flawed and human…and personally I look upon the entire scheme of money digging and Book of Mormon writing as a huge fraudulent scheme, meant to make money for his poverty stricken family. Then it evolved into a “power” thing.

    I hold not just Joseph Smith but also Emma and Oliver Cowdery and Sidney Rigdon responsible.

    I am happy this is not the same church as the one he began.

    • Doug Gregory says:

      Personally, I cannot read D&C 90:5 and many other sections without viewing him as a prophet. The questions is, is there more to faith than what logic will allow us to accept? If not, we then fall into Paul’s writing that Christ is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.

      I have no problem being a fool, as the cynicism of the Greeks offers neither hope nor joy to me.

      That God can use the flawed to help work His purposes out is a wonderful thing, to me.

      • James E Elliott says:

        I can’t make head nor tail of D&C 90:5. Does the first line imply that everyone that has been born and will be born was with God in the beginning? What were they doing before they were born?

        Intelligence, by my dictionary, is the ability to use memory, experience, knowledge, reasning and judgement in order to solve problems and adapt to new situations. These are all activities of our brain so intelligence was created.

        The rest of section 90:5 is just as opaque. If the essence of revelation is conveying information to man, this section is not revelation. Can anyone paraphrase this material so it makes sense?

  3. I think Sidney Rigdon had a lot to do with those sections. He was well read and trained as a minister. Joseph Smith had less then a third grade education and could not even make a letter to Emma make sense.

  4. Doug Gregory says:

    Margie, you seem disinclined to attribute anything positive to Joseph Smith, where I agree more with the author of the article. I’m probably not as well-read on him as you are, but I’m sorry you feel the way you do about him. I volunteer to be the faith-based fool, the one who welcomes the good reports while acknowledging the bad ones too.

  5. FireTag says:

    I like the idea of Inspired Version Genesis / Book of Moses references as an early glimpse of what moderns have made environmental theology. I’ve been thinking about the environmental issues facing us a lot lately, and I’ll be looking forward to that as a future post by someone here.

  6. I admire your ability to do that Doug. I am so disgusted with him and the entire “Book of Mormon” scenario that I cannot cut him much slack.

    Like the Lutherans who have to overlook Martin Luther’s feelings about Jews, and the Catholics who have to deal with the inquisition, I have a hard time dealing with Joseph Smith.

    • Doug Gregory says:

      That was brutally honest, Margie. I know of no perfect prophet, whether it be Mohammed or Wesley or Bhudda or Gibran. With those of us in this blog, Joseph Smith Jr is the most personal and defining to us and our experience, so perhaps that helps explain the ways we perceive him.

      The other interesting aspect of this is the move by Steve to challenge us to take our focus off of the prophet coming down off the mountain bi-annually and to become a prophetic people. I think we comprehend about 1% of what that means, but the implications could be major.

      How do we move beyond “prophet” to “prophetic”?

      • FireTag says:

        Doug:

        And I’d like to narrow the focus still more from “a prophetic people” to “prophetic people” (plural and personal!)

  7. I admire your ability guys to look beyond the warts on Joseph Smith’s character. As I say, it is good that the church has changed so much or I would be history.

  8. James E Elliott says:

    In the process of leaving the RLDS church I became an agnostic. I don’t think there is a suprreme being who sends messages to humans. And most of what Joseph Smith wrote has no value.

  9. That conception of God doesn’t fit mine either, Jim. I think of God as the process God.

  10. dhowlett says:

    In the essay collection that I referenced in my original post, there is a great line that evangelical theologian Richard Mouw quotes from G.K. Chesterton and then applies to Joseph Smith. Chesterton said, “Idolatry is committed, not merely by setting up false gods, but also by setting up false devils.” Mouw wanted his fellow evangelicals to know that Joseph Smith was no devil. To call him such, Mouw asserted, was in effect to commit idolatry. The rest of Mouw’s essay is an attempt to sympathetically look at Joseph Smith from a moderate evangelical perspective. It’s worth reading, IMHO.

    As a historian, I find that knowing more about Joseph Smith’s context makes me far less judgmental of him, and far more sympathetic. For me, he’s not the bronze statue Joseph as he’s portrayed at LDS historic sites, but he is not the dark charlatan of cheap turn-of-the-twentieth century anti-Mormon literature. He is truly a religious genius by any accounting, IMO.

    Religions are a lot like relationships, and when people feel burned in their experience, like a broken relationship, they often tear down the person who they felt hurt them. In one of religious studies scholar Robert Orsi’s books (“Between Heaven and Earth”), he relates how his cousin’s wife died in child birth. His cousin went straight home and smashed a statue of a saint in rage. The man had prayed to the saint, and his prayers had failed. Consequently, the cousin took his revenge on the statue, as if it were a person. What a powerful illustration of the volatility of relationships in religion! They can be full of love, hate, hope, and abuse–the best and worst of human relationships.

    This is all to say that I am sympathetic to pain and hurt that some present and former members of our church have had with Joseph Smith. I understand that pain. I’ve experienced that myself. However, I want to lift up the idea that our complicated (perhaps for some estranged) relationship with Joseph Smith may blind us to how he has positively shaped our denomination. In Mouw’s terms, we verge on idolatry by not treating him fairly. Just something to consider for the new year.

  11. James E Elliott says:

    Early in this sequence, I challenged someone to explain D&C 90:5a. What does it mean that Man was with God in the beginning and intelligence can not be created.

    • FireTag says:

      Jim:

      I have often suspected Joseph saw things he did not have any conceptual framework to understand, and got himself (and his followers) into trouble by trying to connect the dots anyway and produced a picture that incorporated many false and destructive elements in it.

      21st Century science has some possibilities open to us in understanding the relationship between the body, the mind, and the spirit that did not exist in the 19th. Some are just plain strange, but reality itself is just plain strange, as I discuss here. and in the comment thread attached to it.

  12. dhowlett says:

    Hi Jim,
    Bushman gives a fairly lucid explanation of these passages–at least what Joseph might have had in mind when he used these terms. See his Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, pp. 208-210. Bushman makes it clear that this is his own speculation, but, given his credentials, I would say it is a very plausible reading of this passage. You can access these pages by google books (a wonderful innovation for looking things up, but perhaps problematic for publishers wanting to make money). I took your query on good faith; that is, I assumed that you were asking a genuine question and not simply posing a rhetorical question here. Happy reading!

  13. James E Elliott says:

    Thanks for directing me to Rough Stone Rolling, David.
    Richard L Bushman gives his interpretation of D&C 90 on pages 208-210 of his book Rough Stone Rolling. According to Bushman, this revelation was a reply to Protestant Perfectionists. The following are some of his comments.

    Fullness meant truth rather than holiness.

    Protestant perfectionists wanted moral sanctification, Joseph wanted a perfection of knowledge.

    Joseph wrote that the Glory of God is intelligence or in other words light and truth.

    Holiness was not an end in itself but the avenue to intelligence.

    Joseph used intelligence to describe the glory of God. The capacity for seeing and comprehending supernaturally with the spiritual mind was the zenith of human experience.

    After 90:5a, Bushman wrote : The exact meaning of this passage is elusive and interpretations differ. What does it mean that intelligence or the light of truth was not created or made? Is intelligence an independent principle like a law of nature, or does intelligence refer to individual human intelligence?

    Some protestants said human spirit was created along with the rest of the universe, but the revelation suggests that spirits existed before the earth.

    Bushman is an eminent Mormon scholar. But it seems that he, too, is unsure of what 90:5a means.

    Does someone else want to tell me what it means. Some revelation!

  14. FireTag says:

    Did you try the link I gave you, Jim?

    Intelligence was not created because “creation” implies a time when something “was not” and then a time when the something “was”. It is a TEMPORAL concept. But there is no beginning to time, hence no act of creation. Rather, creation is an ongoing process. (Even the big bang tends to be seen now in most theories as a point within a larger physical structure — things evolve through the bang or Bangs are multiple occurrences.)

    The best (admittedly primitive) theories we have of consciousness suggest it is a natural outgrowth of complex physical states. That suggests routes by which spirits (as collective complexes of interactive minds) can emerge into the universe earlier in history than our individual minds do, because copies and variants of us have existed at many locations in space and will recur again.

    Preexistence has nothing to do with “pre” and afterlife has nothing to do with “after”.

    The “fullnes” is not only stranger than be suppose, but stranger than we CAN suppose, to paraphrase Haldane.

  15. James E Elliott says:

    Fire Dog.
    I am sorry, I missed the link you suggested. Please repeat it. Please expand on your thoughts on pre and after. I have always thought of them in terms of some absolute, such as my lifespan, or WW2 or the life of Joseph Smith.

  16. FireTag says:

    Jim:

    The link is to a post on my blog entitled You’ve Read this Post Before.

    It’s a long post, with several links to the background physics topics for those who wish to explore. Basically, it boils down to the notion that laws of physics suggest that the physical universe is infinite in extent, but the number of configurations which can fill any parts of that universe are finite. That says the finite configurations have to be used over and over again.

    You are such a configuration. So am I. So are all of us. So is the earth, the solar system, the Milky Way, etc. So physical law seems to be telling us we have copies and variations of our bodies and lives scattered in what we regard as the “past”, elsewhere “now”, and in the “future”.

    Now, these copies and variants are just as entitled to regard themselves as having spirits as we are. After all, to them, WE are the copies.

    But why should a Spirit care about the location in physical spacetime of its body? Modern physics really calls into question the assumptions of Christian theology about the relation between body and spirit just as earlier physics challenged its theological assumptions that earth was the center of God’s creation.

    I am suggesting that D&C 90, D&C 76, and the Inspired Version of early parts of Genesis are visions Joseph saw of the nature of eternal creation that are real and true, but that he had no conceptual basis to understand. He thought of space and time as absolute stages, not as shifting, mallable actors in the drama itself — just as all of us do in everyday life.

    So he tried to forcefit what he saw into the conceptual framework he had of past, present, future, creation, not created, etc. And we ended up either adopting ideas like Kolob in the LDS or, in the RLDS tradition, maintaining a pre-Restoration view of the relationship between earth and heaven with Joseph’s thoughts oddly layered on (and that we don’t talk about much).

    We’re building our theologies of the “afterlife” on a faulty understanding of the nature of time itself, because even top theoretical physicists accept that no one yet understands the nature of time.

  17. FireTag says:

    Jim:

    The link above is in the first paragraph. I don’t know why the color didn’t change back to black from orange afterward.

  18. Doug Gregory says:

    These contextual discussions are amazing for an average Joe like me. Reading D&C90:5 apparently is something like reading Moses’ account of creation. I still marvel at how a creation story was told to Iron Age people that remains in some ways defensible.

    Every prophet must be limited by their understanding, their language, and their perception of all things around them. To accept less than this seems to be unreasonable. Every prophet has said and done stupid things (as have all of us who share the human condition), but that does not make those insights that stand the test of time any less valid to me.

  19. catholic says:

    But in fact Jesus preached freedom from ritual and legalism.
    Platinum and gold alloys are the traditional metals employed for wedding
    rings. I’ve been told I need to grow my hair (I shave my head), when I had
    my hair to my shoulders in the past I was told through at the church was I visiting that I required to work if I
    was to be spiritual. “If we instinctively seek a paradisiacal and special place on earth, it can be because we all know inside our inner most hearts the earth was handed to us to ensure we would find meaning, order, truth and salvation in it.

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