I see mysticism in Joseph Smith and his work at nearly every turn. Joseph united his mind and consciousness in God to such a great degree that he spoke with the voice of Christ. One only does that if one is genuinely in mystical union with God, or delusional, or a con man (a fake). I perceive Joseph was the first, and I’ll share a few reasons why.
(Credit: The portrait above of Joseph Smith is by Brent Borup.)
I believe this began with the First Vision itself. I believe Joseph undertook a very deep soul-searching prayer, which took a turn through a dark night of the soul, after which the Light of God erupted in his consciousness, he says “my mind was caught away,” and he was filled with joy, peace, and love indescribable, ineffable. He perceived his being as perfectly sinless and stainless, which he interpreted as being “forgiven of his sins.” He perceived that the institutions of his day did not really know God, even as he was knowing God, for this was something far more transcendent than what the institutions teach. I believe he perceived Christ consciousness, which his mind projected in vision as Jesus. He fell back into his regular sense of self perception afterwards, but was filled with love for many days following. This is a classic mystical experience, it seems to me.
I believe that his work on the Book of Mormon was deeply mystical. What was he doing putting his head in a hat with a seer stone? It seems to me that he was entering a deep mystical state of awareness, a meditative contemplative altered state of mind and consciousness, using the seer stone as a meditation object. In that state of mind, he was able to develop an extraordinary creative work of spiritual text. It drew from his entire experience, all his memories, his readings, his life, his relationships, his understandings. He wrote down his soul, crafted brilliantly in spiritual metaphor and allegory.
At times I think his mystical vision achieved heights similar to the First Vision again, and in those moments we see visions like that of the Tree of Life, the vision of King Lamoni, and the visitation of Christ in 3 Nephi, as well as others. Whenever the Spirit appears in vision in the text, the Spirit of the Lord, or other heavenly vision, I think it was Joseph having that vision, his mind translating it into text. And, visions such as the degrees of glory, as well as many of those in the D&C, seem to have been perceived in mystical state of consciousness or enlightened awareness.
I think his work of developing doctrines and ordinances may have had roots in his visions, Joseph’s egoic mind trying to make sense of them, framing them in symbols that people would understand. Take the temple, for example. I think it had roots in his mystical visions, and was his attempt to reify or concretize those visionary intuitions into a communal, objective, consensus reality.
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The sealing of people together, for example, may have come from his mystical perception of Oneness, that we are all of the one Family of God, even this One Human Family, and that this is our true eternal identity, forever as One. And so sealings were a way of illustrating and materializing that mystical understanding in a religious form and earthly institution, framed in marriage, but also including children and other family members, and even members of various other families together in One sealing. Joseph was trying to communicate this sense of our eternal Oneness, it seems to me.
Baptism for the dead I think was another religious rite that may have emerged from his deeper mystical insights. It may have been a continuation of the mystical insight of Oneness that carried over into those who have passed on before us. They too are one with us, and if we are to be together eternally, then they needed a spiritual rite performed as well. Baptism was that rite, one that was even conveniently noted in the New Testament, continuing on to sealing. He wanted to be joined in Oneness with all those who had passed on before him, so that they too may be joined in the One Family of God. Not that dead people necessarily or fundamentally need baptism in order to be part of that One Family, I perceive, but that may have been how Joseph reified his mystical insight of such, and communicated it to the Saints who had not had such mystical insight.
I perceive that nearly all religious ordinances, rites, and sacraments are the reification and concretization of mystical visions and insights. It is taking spiritual knowledge and understanding, and making it something that we do, to continually remind ourselves of that insight, to celebrate that insight, to teach us how to act in the world according to that insight. Where else would such rites come from? All religions reify their founding mystical insights into organizations, rules, rites, and structures. It is what humans do; we organize in order to communicate, to hopefully regain that mystical communion itself.
Over time, however, nearly every religious institution loses the ability to help guide people into the actual mystical consciousness itself, into that direct spiritual awareness of Divine Holistic Universal realities, and so the religions can become moralistic, dogmatic, and ritualistic, void of the powerful mystical spiritual experiences that once saturated them. The mystical vision is lost. There is an “apostasy” we might say.
And who brings back the vision? The mystics, like Joseph Smith, the Buddha, Jesus, Joan of Arc, Meister Eckhart, Richard Rohr, Ken Wilber, Jean Houston, Teresa of Avila, Muhammad, John Calvin, John Wesley, Ann Lee, Ellen White, etc. These bring back that lost mystical vision, the lost spiritual experience, that direct Divine perception, union, and at-one-ment in Oneness and Nonduality. And they have to communicate that vision somehow, in fallible rites, sacraments, institutions, and people who cannot help but have egos.
Unless that vision is well-maintained in the religions, and is continually returned to by each and all within the religion, it may eventually be lost, and is only brought back through the mystics, through the true prophets who have direct divine communion and are willing to share their insights, however fallible, to inspire others to also venture into the Mystery of our mind and spiritual consciousness, and come to know Ultimate Truth directly.
I don’t perceive there is anything shallow and formulaic in Joseph Smith’s visions. I think they are deeply mystical, in my opinion, just as are the mystical insights of many spiritual figures throughout time, even so-called “atheistic” ones like Sam Harris, Einstein, and Carl Sagan!
Perhaps this may help some to see how I see the mysticism in Joseph Smith.