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Joseph Smith - Quintessential American
on August 29, 2007
Desiring some basic understanding of Mormonism, I asked a priest friend from Utah to recommend a book. He said that it is hard to find a good book because writings on Mormonism tend to be either Mormon propaganda or anti-Mormon attacks. He did mention that a lot of people were reading *Under the Banner of Heaven* by Jon Krakauer. It turned out be a slash-and-burn attack not only on Mormonism, but religion in general. Shortly after reading Krakauer's book, I discovered *Rough Stone Rolling.* What a contrast! And what an amazing accomplishment! As both a practicing Mormon and a Columbia University professor, Dr. Bushman enables an outsider (like myself) to appreciate the life and times of Joseph Smith.
Before commenting on *Rough Stone Rolling,* I want to make an obvious (but necessary) disclaimer: As a Catholic I do not accept the basic thesis of Mormonism - namely, that Jesus founded a Church and then allowed it to fall into apostasy until a nineteenth century American named Joseph Smith restored it. Mormons believe that, with the death of the last apostle, the Church also died. Catholics, by contrast, believe that the pope and bishops are successors of the apostles.
With that disclaimer in mind, I must say that Dr. Bushman helped me appreciate the great genius of Joseph Smith. At a time when rationalism was robbing people of a direct experience of God, Smith convincingly presented himself as a prophet and wanted others to have similar revelations from God. But he also recognized the need for authority to prevent individual revelations from fracturing the community. In the process he set up structures very familiar to Catholics: a priesthood, a hierarchy with one final authority and rituals which connect believers to divine mysteries. *Rough Stone Rolling* details the steps involved in the creation of a church that would impact the lives of millions of people.
Joseph Smith lived only thirty-eight years, but he had a greater long-term influence than any nineteenth century American. In some ways he was the quintessential American. Emerging from very humble origins, Smith embodies the American ideal of the self-made man. And he had democracy deep his bones: Notwithstanding his extraordinary revelations, he did not put on airs; he wanted all of his follower to receive revelations. Above all, Joseph Smith was a quintessential American in his can-do spirit. Build the heavenly Zion here on earth? No problem. Let's do it right here in Missouri. And when they drove him out of Missouri, he started over again in Illinois with an even bolder vision. That is the American spirit - and Joseph Smith incarnated it to the nth degree.
As Bushman brings out in great detail, Joseph Smith not only had faith in his personal revelations; he had great faith in his country and its constitution. Even when that country treated him badly, he kept faith that its institutions would bring him vindication. In the end the legal system and its officers failed him and he died at the hands of a mob while being held in the Carthage, IL, jail.
Joseph Smith's life provides much material for reflection. I would like to mention two areas that particularly called my attention. The first relates to Joseph Smith's "can do" spirit. It has a downside: a peculiar blindness to the reality of man's fallen nature (original sin). Bushman describes Smith as someone who underestimated the evil in his enemies, his followers - and himself. It came out most dramatically in the shameful treatment of his wife. He tried to give Emma everything, but in the end he did not give her what he had pledged and what she most desired: Joseph himself.
A second question *Rough Stone Rolling* raises is how we as a society accommodate people who have very different beliefs. Can we appeal to a "natural law" which binds everyone? I believe we can. For example, that it is wrong to defraud, break a contract, physically harm or take an innocent human life. Also, I believe, we can argue from the basis of the natural law that marriage is an institution that binds one man and one woman in a life-long and exclusive union. At the same time, I am concerned that our society is falling into what Pope Benedict called a "dictatorship of relativism." That is, many people have despaired of articulating a natural law applicable to all - and instead feel that the only thing we have left is a kind of mob rule, where matters are decided simply on the basis of who (or what group) is most powerful politically. The life of Joseph Smith - and his continuing influence among Mormons - provides a dramatic test case for these important questions. And it appears that, if we continue to move in the direction of a dictatorship of relativism, Catholics, Mormons and other people of faith, will have many occasions to stand together for the rights of conscience.