Thoughts on historical context and Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith Mormon

Joseph Smith Mormon (Photo credit: More Good Foundation)

One of my favorite news aggregators is the Real Clear service that pulls opinion pieces from all across the web and then categorizes them into “Politics,” “Science,” “Technology,” “Religion,” etc.  I recently found a couple of articles in their Religion section on Mormon history to be rather interesting.

In case you are unaware of this issue, in the last 100 years or so, ever since the last people who knew Joseph Smith personally died, church publications about his life history tended to focus on the more positive aspects of his life history.  Some have interpreted this as a sort of cover-up.  In full disclosure, I am of the school of thought that it is simply a manifestation of cognitive-dissonance.  As historians no longer had access to primary sources that could put some of the unsavory and/or questionable information about Brother Joseph into context, they would just exclude it.

Well, this was all fine and good until the advent of the internet when everything knowable about Joseph’s life was suddenly published and many members came across information that had been left out of his official biographies.  What more, this information was often published without historical context and framed in a negative way.  I recently attended a conference with a BYU historian and he spoke of being on the defensive in the battle of providing context to Joseph’s life history and much of what he did.

Well, I found it interesting that on Sunday the New York Times published a lengthy article “Some Mormons Search the Web and find Doubt.”  It addresses this problem and unfortunately frames it badly, basically implying that it should be causing more problems than it is.  I read this via Real Clear Religion, and was disappointed.

So, then this morning I go back to Real Clear Religion and find a new article on Patheos about Joseph Smith and what the author frames as “occult” practices (“Occult in America: Joseph Smith“).  This was not written in response to the New York Times Article, and in fact was published one day prior.  The interesting thing about this article is that in spite of his use of the word “occult” and the derogatory moniker “old Joe,” he actually provides some very good historical context for certain religious practices Joseph used to seek revelation that have fallen out of favor both inside of contemporary Mormonism and mainstream American Christianity.  He provides several statements that normalize Joseph’s divining and revelatory practices.

Some selections:

“Those beliefs did not make [the Smith family] outsiders either, it made them average.”

“Incredibly such ‘visions’ were a part of the religious landscape in the United States during the early part of the 19th Century.”

“Old Joe was simply a product of his times, and while most of us today probably scoff at the idea of searching for buried treasure, it was a fairly common pastime in early America.”

“In addition to seer stones and divining rods Joseph Smith and family also practiced ceremonial magic. Again, this is not unique. In 1822 a magazine in New York stated that ‘we find textbooks of Kabbalah, necromancy, astrology, magic, fortune-telling, and various proofs of witchcraft’ when writing about a local bookstore.”

The author even opened with this gem: “When it was over and all my research was done if I found myself really liking ‘Old Joe.’ Don’t worry, converting to Mormonism never crossed my mind, but I’m drawn to religious outsiders, and Joseph Smith Junior might be the most famous religious outsider of the last 200 years.”

Smith's later theology described Jesus and God...

I genuinely feel sympathy for people who learn something new about the church and then are hit with a crisis of faith.  I even wrote on this blog about a similar experience I had when I truly questioned the Church’s discriminatory policy on the priesthood.  It’s terrifying to suddenly challenge what you thought you knew was truth.  I do believe though that if you have built your faith on a foundation of Christ you should be able to work through your crisis.  Just be optimistic, and know that your doubt will eventually be satisfied.

After all, if a non-believer can spend months researching Joseph’s “occult” practices and come away with a better appreciation of who Joseph was in the context of history, than surely those of us who have received divine inspiration that he was a living prophet can also do so.