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?