(This continues a series of posts about reconstructing the Mormon/Christian narrative. Please read this introductory post first, if you haven’t already, before continuing.)
Who was Joseph Smith Jr. (1805-1844)? He’s been quite an enigma both within and outside of Mormonism since his death. Many Mormons see him as a deeply gifted prophet of God, in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, and even Moses. He recorded and published new scripture, the Book of Mormon, just like ancient prophets. Many Mormons revere him as someone who restored Christianity in its purity, even the original Christian church and true gospel of Jesus. They believe he received true priesthood authority from God to perform real saving rituals, ordinances, and act as a “high priest” to bring others into the presence of God.
Others see him as a charlatan, a fraud, a false prophet, a liar, perhaps like Harold Hill in The Music Man. Still others see him as a kind of magician, an occultist, a psychedelic shaman, one who pulled the wool over people’s eyes to deceive them for his own gain, power, and advantage. Still other people see him as deluded, crazy, mentally deranged, and dangerous as a pedophile, misogynist, sexual predator, an authoritarian religious leader.
So Joseph reaches both ends of the spectrum, being both highly regarded and praised, and also thought of as the worst of the worst. He perhaps had an intuition that this could be the case, as he noted in 1838 that God revealed to him that his “name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people” (JS-H 1:33).
And so many people wonder, who was this man? I don’t pretend to have all the answers to that deeply complex question, but I will offer some of my thoughts on the subject of who I think Joseph Smith Jr. was, what he did, and how we might consider him.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and many other denominations in Mormonism, clearly like to describe Joseph in the most positive of terms, and very favorably, and I think reasonably so. He was their founder, the originator, the one who got the “rock” rolling in organizing this new religious movement and church(es). They see in him a true prophet, seer, and revelator, called by God to be so beginning with his “First Vision.” He is thought of as a divinely gifted translator of ancient holy texts, scriptures, bringing new insights and witness of God, Jesus, and the divine will into the modern day. He is believed to be God’s chosen one in the “latter days” to bring God’s true gospel, saving ordinances, priesthood authority, and the meaning of life back into the world after it had been lost for centuries (what is known as “the Apostasy”). He was attacked and killed in what is seen as a martyrdom, Joseph “sealing his testimony with his blood.”
To see just how highly Mormons revered and continue to revere Joseph we may look to section 135 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which was the announcement of his death. It included this passionate statement:
Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it.
The Traditional Interpretation’s Failure
I perceive that there is a lot of truth in the above description of Joseph Smith, but I think the common narrative is failing, or has failed for many people, and we need radical new interpretations of Joseph Smith to adequately approach the radical person that I think he was. I will offer an interpretation and reconstruction of the man that I think makes more sense of who he was, given our modern global understandings of spirituality and religious experience.
Some of the problems that I see with the traditional narrative and interpretations of Joseph Smith are:
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- He is seen as black or white, either/or. He is thought to be either a divinely called morally righteous prophet of God, or the most wicked fraudster and deceiver, but nothing in-between or from a range of the spectrum.
- He is thought to be the exclusive receiver of God’s will and authority in modern times, the only “prophet” on the entire Earth during his lifetime, the one God chose to reveal the one and only truth about God to everyone, everywhere.
- He is seen as a kind of “puppet” prophet with regards to the Book of Mormon, one who did not say anything of his own in the book, but dictated it entirely from God, and that it was originally written by ancient Mesoamerican prophets.
- He is considered to be the only one to have revealed anew ordinances or rituals, and that these alone may “save” all humanity, all humans who have ever lived on the Earth, are currently living, or who may live. Thus, everyone must become a Mormon to be “saved,” whether in this life or after it.
As I noted in my reconstruction of the First Vision, I don’t think Joseph was the first one in modern history to have received divine outpourings of spirit and mystical insights and wisdom. Joseph is one among many people all around the world and throughout history who have had deep mystical experiences of “God.” He belongs to a much greater community of prophets, seers, revelators, mystics, sages, gurus, saints, nuns, swamis, adepts, shamans, ascetics, wisdom teachers, contemplatives, monks, arhats, bodhisattvas, visionaries, manifestations of God. There are likely many many thousands of people who have had the kind of divine or spiritual insight that Joseph had, even many who are alive today. They are found in nearly every religious or spiritual tradition all around the world.
These are people who have had radical shifts of consciousness such that they perceive things in a very different way than is typical of human consciousness. They are what Mormons might know as seers, those who can see the true nature of reality, and who then try to help guide others into seeing it, into seeing Truth itself. They interpret their experiences of reality in a multitude of ways, according to their culture, education, language, and other conditioning. They are each more or less valid ways of expressing the inexpressible, and some have more or less success in helping others to realize that vision that they have seen, to see into the depths of life, being, consciousness, and realizing Divinity there. They help others come to see the sacredness of Life, the preciousness of all Consciousness, and the eternal nature of Being.
But just because they’ve had these deeply life-changing visions and experiences of “God” does not mean they are perfect people, incapable of error, beyond reproach or criticism, or that they teach the one and only truth for all of humanity. They are each imperfect, fallible, flawed individuals, just like all of us. They make errors, just like us. What they say may be deeply inspired, but it is not the absolute Truth; it is relative truth, designed to help guide others towards absolute Truth, Ultimate Reality, or God. Much of what they teach is framed in parable, allegory, metaphor, and symbol, reifying their deepest intuitions and insights in symbolic and physical forms (rituals). They often know that what they are teaching is not absolutely true, but they cannot help but speak something of their experiences which were to them containing ultimate meaning, life-giving vision, eternal import. They want to help others also have that experience, and see reality truly, consciousness truly, even the true nature of humanity and divinity.
They often suffer severe persecution, criticism, punishment, imprisonment, and sometimes are killed for their views because they often have struck at the heart of the surrounding contemporary religions, institutions, political establishments, traditions, and status quo. What they teach often seems blasphemous, heresy, unorthodox, contradictory, speaking truth to power, and this can cut like a knife to the ego. And this often gets them in trouble with those who are orthodox, and are part of powerful institutions, whether political or religious. They are cast out, banished, exiled, excommunicated, imprisoned, tortured, burned at the stake, shunned, shot, or crucified. Truth, even relative truth, is often hard to hear.
Yet in spite of all this they seem to be able to deliver powerful messages, teachings that are deeply inspiring, that come from a place deep within their consciousness and being, that come from their experience in divine states of consciousness, in witnessing divine realities, giving messages that resonate deeply within those who hear them, and they echo through time, through centuries, from dungeons, from caves, from exile, from the fringes, from the edges, from the cross.
A New Interpretation
I think it was this class of person that Joseph Smith was. I suggest he was a profound mystic, an early nineteenth century American contemplative and visionary, one who came into direct contact with Divine realities, the deepest forms of consciousness and perception and being, and who subsequently interpreted or “translated” his experiences into a host of different symbols, forms, allegories, stories, doctrines, teachings, rituals, and ideas. He may not have consciously known he was so “translating” his divine experience at times, but it seems he did at others. He was doing what prophet-mystics do, taking the experience of inexpressible divine realities, and dressing them in concrete forms, expressions, symbols, names, philosophy, theology, making abstract ideas grounded in reality.
I think his “First Vision” was just the beginning of many experiences of divine states of consciousness, God consciousness, forms of consciousness which can see further, deeper, wider, more expansively, more clearly, more directly, beyond ego “self,” to the depths of what it means to be human, alive, aware of reality, of being. I think he became adept at altering his consciousness into these contemplative or meditative states, whether through focused intention or through other means of reliably shifting consciousness out of its habitual modes. When consciousness changes form, so does perception. Visions arise in consciousness, what many people may call “hallucinations,” but this term I think often does such experiences a disservice, discounting the powerful life-changing nature of them. Such visions often reveal deeper aspects of ourself, our nature, our humanity, our consciousness, which have real import. They are not merely fiction. The famed psychiatrist Carl Jung explored the depths of consciousness and found many very intriguing and meaningful things there, which are often revealed in such visions or dreams. Scientists are now taking these states of consciousness seriously, realizing that they have deep meaning and implications for human well-being.
The problems seem to arise when we think that what mystics like Joseph Smith said or taught is absolutely true, the Truth itself. We make their words into idols, expressions which no longer point to the Truth, but are the Truth in themselves. They are no longer symbolic representations of Truth, parables, metaphors, guides to Truth, but the words themselves, the ideas, become fossilized and hardened into stone, the unchanging Truth of God and Reality. Even in a religion which prizes continual revelation, the doctrines can become rigid, unbending, stiff, moralistic, legalistic. When we think the Truth is literally in the ideas themselves, the words, the forms, the persons, and not that to which the ideas point, we can become lost. We actually can begin to fight against Truth, instead of being disciples of it. And this is the unfortunate state of many fundamentalist religions throughout the world and history. I think the modern LDS Church shows many signs of this kind of fundamentalism (not to be confused with those who are often known as “fundamentalist” Mormons).
Black or White thinking
Was Joseph a prophet or a deceiver, a gifted wisdom teacher or a magician? I don’t think any such strict categories of either/or works in describing anyone. The truth is likely not a case of one or the other, black or white, but both. We all have both good and bad within us, light and dark. Something that I heard recently from Franciscan friar Richard Rohr that I think applies well here is this:
“Every great person has tragic flaws.”
There are many people who do wonderful things in the world, but who also exhibit deep flaws. The prophets, saints, and mystics are no exception to this. As I noted about Jesus, even he did not consider himself worthy of the label “good” (Mark 10:18). Every great person in history can be shown to have deep problems, errors, troubles, deficits in character, bad judgments, wrong decisions, uninspired behaviors, flawed perception, etc. They are not wholly “good.” No one is, or they are not human. Part of being human means having imperfections.
We all have egos, we all have deep instincts, buried qualities of psyche, buried emotions, dark shadows, broken parts of ourselves. No one is immune. I think no one has become a “perfect” human, because it is a contradiction of terms. We all have good qualities and bad qualities. Those who are more conscious, or awakened to reality, tend to become more aware of their bad or undesirable qualities more readily, and are able to overcome them or integrate them in healthy ways, but not always. We could recite many of the most revered saints and statesmen of history who were deeply troubled in some ways, sometimes in many ways. This is human nature.
John M. Bernhisel, a physician and later delegate for Utah to the United States House of Representatives, after spending nine months boarding with the Smith family wrote some impressions of Joseph which I think are likely accurate, noting particularly his contemplative nature:
“General Joseph Smith is naturally a man of strong mental powers, and is possessed of much energy and decision of character, great penetration and a profound knowledge of human nature. He is a man of calm judgment, enlarged views, and is eminently distinguished by his love of justice. He is kind and obliging, generous and benevolent, sociable and cheerful, and is possessed of a mind of a contemplative and reflective character. He is honest, frank, fearless and independent, and as free from dissension as any now to be found. But it is in the gentle charities of domestic life, as the tender and affectionate husband and parent, the warm and sympathizing friend, that the prominent traits of his character are revealed, and his heart is felt to be keenly alive to the kindest and softest emotions of which human nature is susceptible. He is a true lover of his country and a bright and shining example of integrity and moral excellence in all the relations of life. As a religious teacher as well as a man, he is greatly beloved by this people.”Andrus and Andrus, They Knew the Prophet, 199
That doesn’t sound to me like one who is crazy, a predator, or a charlatan, unless he was incredibly charismatic and hid very well his darkest traits from those who knew him most closely. I think Joseph was sincere. He may have been deeply mistaken at times, but I don’t think he was trying to be deceitful. I think he deeply believed his visions.
I don’t think everything Joseph said was the “word of God.” I don’t think what he taught was absolutely the Truth. I don’t think he was perfectly righteous, moral, honest, or without tragic flaws. Neither do I think he was the consummate deceiver, liar, fraud, or occult soothsayer. I think the truth is found somewhere along the spectrum, and all over the spectrum. Even so it is with each of us. We are all deeply complex beings.
While we shouldn’t simply excuse bad behavior, I think we do best in life when we choose to see good in people. This may be compared to Jesus’ teachings about only those without sin casting stones, and plucking out the beam from your own eye before finding the mote in another. The Buddhist teacher Culadasa (John Yates) recently said:
Look for the goodness in every person, every situation, every institution. It’s there. Your mind is predisposed to see the other. We’re not denying that the other exists, but try to see the goodness. It’s easy to see the goodness in the people that you love and that are good to you. Try to see the goodness in the people that are a problem in your life. They are not just a problem to you. They are also someone who, in their own way, is loveable, and loved as a result. In the situations you find yourself in, there may be a lot of painful ramifications for you personally. But there is still some goodness that comes from this. Look for the goodness in the world.
Exclusive Authority and Truth
It’s probably evident by now that I don’t think that what Joseph taught was exclusively the Truth about God and reality. He was pointing at Truth, specifically the deepest truth of his own conscious experiences, but every “translation” of his experiences into words was and is necessarily fallible, incomplete, and symbolic. When he used his mind to formulate words, concepts, ideas, forms, he was using his finite conditioned mind to point at ineffable realities that transcend all language, forms, concepts, ideas. None of what he taught is the absolute Truth. When he was in a state of consciousness that was most attuned to those deepest parts of his experience, then his words were saturated and inspired with meaning that could touch the hearts of many people. His words, from deep within his heart, could reach down and touch the hearts of others, perhaps even engendering in them the same kinds of experiences which were the source of Joseph’s own intuitions and insights. When he was in a more egoic state of consciousness, then his words may have been informed by prior states that were more pure and selfless, but may have been tainted by his own human struggles to survive, instinctual reactions to his harsh environment, trying to defend his ideas and organization. I see both sides in Joseph.
Yes, Joseph himself may have thought at times that he was the exclusive receiver of God’s will and truth, but I think this may have been coming more from his ego than from his deepest experiences of consciousness. As I noted briefly in discussing the First Vision, there is a very powerful sense of authority and truth that one senses in mystical experiences, that one has reached the very ground of being itself, the highest heaven, and this gives one a glimpse into the foundations of reality itself, and a power within one’s self that seems unlimited and inexhaustible. There is an objectivity and a reality to the experiences of these states of consciousness that seem to reveal truth as it is, and it is seen as undeniably true. Yet, while that may be the case that these mystical states of consciousness do reveal the ultimate truth about human life and being, these truths cannot be directly interpreted or translated into any words, doctrines, or teachings. They go far beyond the reach of these. The prophet-mystics have to be careful, and Joseph may not have been as careful at times, to couch their words as provisional, parable, symbolic, referential, pointing to those highest of Truths, but never actually being them.
I think it is helpful to keep in mind the environment that Joseph lived in. He was part of the Second Great Awakening, and the burned-over district, one of many attempts at a Restoration Movement in early nineteenth-century American Protestant Christianity. There were many ideas about God circulating, and if he had been half-hearted about his truth claims, his ideas may have not got traction. This perhaps was both his success and his downfall. He claimed many of his ideas were the ultimate Truth, and yet we are seeing through those very same ideas today and realizing that they were not, and this is disturbing to many. While not being ultimate, I think many of his ideas are in line with those of other Christian mystics throughout history, and even non-Christian mystics. And I think it is valuable to view them in that interspiritual and interfaith perspective.
As Joseph himself seemed to teach through his insight or revelation of the Book of Mormon (itself a “translation”), the relative truths of God and reality are to be found throughout the world and throughout history. When we bring all these teachings together, we are able to see the patterns in them pointing to the Truth.
Know ye not that there are more nations than one? Know ye not that I, the Lord your God, have created all men, and that I remember those who are upon the isles of the sea; and that I rule in the heavens above and in the earth beneath; and I bring forth my word unto the children of men, yea, even upon all the nations of the earth?
Wherefore murmur ye, because that ye shall receive more of my word? Know ye not that the testimony of two nations is a witness unto you that I am God, that I remember one nation like unto another? Wherefore, I speak the same words unto one nation like unto another. And when the two nations shall run together the testimony of the two nations shall run together also.
And I do this that I may prove unto many that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever; and that I speak forth my words according to mine own pleasure. And because that I have spoken one word ye need not suppose that I cannot speak another; for my work is not yet finished; neither shall it be until the end of man, neither from that time henceforth and forever…
For I command all men, both in the east and in the west, and in the north, and in the south, and in the islands of the sea, that they shall write the words which I speak unto them; for out of the books which shall be written I will judge the world, every man according to their works, according to that which is written.2 Nephi 29:7-9, 11
The traditional narrative considers that what Joseph dictated in the Book of Mormon is the absolute word of God, and that it came entirely from God, without hardly any influence from Joseph. This book was thought to be a history from the ancient inhabitants of the American continent, a people who left Jerusalem around 600 BC and migrated across the ocean to the American shore. They purportedly wrote their history on gold plates, hid them in the ground, and Joseph claimed to recover them and “translate” them. It is thought that they weren’t Joseph’s words, but rather from these ancient Mesoamerican (Christian) prophets.
I will offer a reconstruction and interpretation of the Book of Mormon in a future post in this series, but I want to share some thoughts about the translation process here. I don’t think Joseph was acting as a kind of divine puppet, God merely speaking other people’s words through his mouth. I think Joseph was the source of the words, all the words (except those parts that came from the Bible).
More specifically, I think the words flowed out of him from a deep altered state of consciousness, a divine state of consciousness, what we might consider a meditative contemplative state of consciousness. I think he used his seer stone in order to facilitate focusing his mind onto that meditation object, and causing this shift of conscious awareness. Rather than his mind being pervaded by the typical egoic thoughts that we are so often familiar, I think Joseph was able to change his consciousness to a much more focused, open, and creative state, one which we are mostly unfamiliar with today. It is from that deeply transparent, open, aware state of mind that I think he was able to dictate the words that became the Book of Mormon. I think they came out of his consciousness, his deep state of consciousness, perhaps beyond all typical “Joseph self” egoic consciousness, but still consciousness arising within Joseph. He perhaps reached depths of consciousness that we have never known, and few ever know. This may even be referred to as God consciousness, but it was still arising within Joseph’s body-mind. He notes on occasion that his mind had to be in a very specific mode in order for the translation to work. I think it is these kinds of depths of consciousness that he was pointing at.
I think Joseph may have dictated most of the text “automatically,” what is known as automatic writing. There are other spiritual texts that have been written similarly this way, including Jane Roberts’ Seth Material, and Pearl Curran’s Patience Worth. This seems to be a type of writing that emerges from the unconscious mind or subconsciousness, coming from areas of the mind and brain that are not necessarily fully in conscious awareness, deep from within the psyche. Thus Joseph himself may have thought that he was being given the words from an external divine source, yet they were emerging from his own deeper consciousness, an internal divine source, outside of his conscious awareness. There is still much we don’t know about automatic writing, but I suggest the words were reflective of his own experiences in life, his own deepest thoughts about God and interpretation of his very real experiences of the Divine, his personal ideas about the ancient Americans, and a profound gift of creativity, which brought it all together in an exquisite spiritual allegory.
Rather than Joseph revealing wisdom from the ancient inhabitants of the Americas, I think he was revealing wisdom from deep within his self, even from his Self, what some have called “ancient wisdom” or “perennial wisdom.” Why is it considered “ancient”? It is not that it has its literal source in ancient times, but that it is deeply embedded within human nature and consciousness itself, and this is present in humanity at all times and places, and people throughout history have recovered this wisdom from within themselves, from within consciousness.
Saving Ordinances and Rituals
It is taught that Joseph revealed a whole set of ordinances and rituals that one must progress through in order to attain to the highest level of heaven, or exaltation with God. These are said were revealed by God to Joseph and the church in order for all people to be justified, purified, sanctified, and receive of the greatest gifts of God, even God’s Presence. The LDS Church believes that these ordinances are required for entrance into heaven.
We tend to think about such rituals literally, that performing an action here and now has some kind of cosmic eternal effect. This is a kind of magical thinking, and was actually downplayed by none other than Hugh Nibley, one of Mormonism’s brightest scholars:
“The ordinances are mere forms. They do not exalt us; they merely prepare us to be ready in case we ever become eligible.”“The Meaning of the Temple”
If the ordinances are “mere forms,” and have no real eternal effect, then what are they for? I think this can be equated to the liturgy of any and all spiritual and religious traditions. What are all the actions for, the performances, the rituals, the behaviors, the practices? I suggest that they are symbolic of inner changes, qualities, and states that happen in our life and consciousness. They are representational of transrational realities which are symbolized in concrete physical forms and performances. Ultimately I think they are meant to help attune our minds towards the transcendent, to help shift our minds into divine states of consciousness and awareness, and to actually experience mystical states directly. Often they fall far short of this, and become rote and banal ritualisms devoid of meaning, empty of facilitating sensations of awe, beauty, and the sacred, and then they may not point to the deeper spiritual realities anymore, but become another absolute Truth in and of themselves, performed for their own sake.
It’s not the ordinances that we must perform that will bring us into God’s Presence, but rather I think it is particular behaviors and practices that we do that help us to become aware of Divine or Sacred realities within ourself and our consciousness, and to realize deeper truths about ourself and nature. I think Joseph was engaged in the creation of many Christian practices, rituals, forms, which he thought would help people become aware of these transcendent realities within them, and bring them into the Presence of God and Reality. But Joseph’s rituals are not the only practices that may do this. I’ll discuss some of the ordinances and ritualistic practices more specifically in a future post of this series.
So, who was Joseph Smith Jr.? I think he was a complex man, who was deeply gifted with mystical insight and contemplative consciousness, but also deeply embedded within an early nineteenth century Protestant American and folk magic worldview. He interpreted many of his mystical insights in light of that worldview, but even so, I think much of the deep mystical nature of his insights still shines through, and connects back to many other mystical traditions throughout religious history.
Of course, we can only interpret our experience according to our knowledge and understanding of the world. But when we dive deep into consciousness, we often surpass the conditioning of the world, and move beyond mere concepts, ideas, readings, doctrines, thoughts, and symbols, to perceiving things in their purity, the true nature of the mind and consciousness and even reality. Interpreting those insights then can take on the form of new symbols, new rituals, new scriptures, new ideas, and these can have many similarities to other mystics who have come before, deriving similar intuitions about human nature from experiencing the depths of human nature and consciousness itself. “Ancient wisdom” is recovered once again from within humanity, from a source within consciousness that may be called Divine, or God.
In my view Joseph Smith was far from perfect, flawed in many ways, and yet despite that he did some truly amazing things to begin a new religious movement known as Mormonism and which has grown to this day. His revelation of the Book of Mormon, while not literally historical, I think is deeply spiritual, and mystical, engaging in discussion through allegory those deepest qualities of human nature and consciousness.
The Yale literary critic Harold Bloom has said of Joseph Smith:
Whatever his lapses, Smith was an authentic religious genius, unique in our national history.Harold Bloom, The American Religion, 73
I can only attribute to his genius or daemons his uncanny recovery of elements in ancient Jewish theurgy that had ceased to be available either to Judaism or to Christianity, and that had survived only in esoteric traditions unlikely to have touched Smith directly.Harold Bloom, The American Religion, 97
I agree with Bloom. I think Joseph was a true mystic, a religious genius, who had experiences of genuine “prophetic” consciousness (meaning one who taught and wrote profoundly about his mystical experiences), a reformer, a religious founder, a seer, an alchemist, a contemplative, an adept, a shaman, a high priest, a wisdom teacher, a visionary. He was one who had direct encounters with Divine qualities of consciousness, and like many religious figures before him, interpreted those experiences to the best of his knowledge and ability in his time and place, and who yearned to bring others into that same transcendent Divine consciousness. He had faults, and we should not avoid identifying those weaknesses and errors, but I think we can choose to see the good in him as well. But we cannot end with Joseph’s interpretations either. They are not final. His interpretations need continual updating, refreshing, reinterpretation, reconstruction, retranslation, and that is what I am hoping to offer with this series of posts.
What do you think about this reconstruction of Joseph Smith? Do you think it helps make better sense of the man, the good and the bad of his character and life? Does it help to see him in a larger community of religious founders and theologians? How do you interpret Joseph Smith? What difficulties do you see in this interpretation? I’m interested to hear your views. Please share your thoughts in the comments below or on Facebook.
(See the next post in this series about the Book of Mormon.)