In my concluding post on Rough Stone Rolling, I thought we’d explore the question of history and how (or even if) it can illuminate religious faith. What are the duties of a scholar? What is naturalistic history and is it always bound to offend believers? Can history arbitrate the truth claims of a religion? Does a book like Bushman’s help us learn more about Joseph Smith and help deepen our faith?

That’s a lot to bite off, and I can’t do it justice here. Bushman himself very ably addressed many of these questions in Believing History and also in the last chapter of Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism. I can only touch on these questions here, and add a concluding thought.

In prior posts, we’ve been wrestling with how a non-believing historian might treat the supernatural claims of religious leaders. What is a “naturalist” history and must it always be hostile to faith? DKL mentioned the portents accompanying Julius Caesar’s birth, or Alexander’s claim to divinity. To these we could add the Shinto belief that the Japanese Emperor is descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu or the Roman Emperors’ claims of divinity. How might a naturalist historian treat these claims? Should they even be mentioned at all?

We might distinguish between two kinds of naturalism, weak naturalism and strong naturalism. Weak naturalism is Bushman’s approach, where the truth claims are bracketed. They are discussed neutrally without assuming they are fabricated. Bushman basically takes the religious claims at face value. But this still qualifies as naturalist history because he doesn’t mind pointing out naturalistic influences and motivations that may have colored the theology and organization of the LDS Church.

There are a lot of religions where even this approach might be offensive, but Mormonism is somewhat unique in that we believe that God acts in time and not outside of it, that God acts through history, and so it does not threaten our beliefs to say that Joseph was prepared or influenced or prompted by circumstances and preoccupations of himself and his times.

What we could call strong naturalism rules out any possibility of anything divine, spiritual, or supernatural. Therefore all claims of such must be false, and the only question is whether this is deliberate or the result of delusion or madness. This is the approach of Fawn Brodie, Dan Vogel, and others, and is best explicated by Dale Morgan in his correspondence with Juanita Brooks this way:

[I am aware of] a fatal defect in my objectivity. It is an objectivity on one side only of a philosophical Great Divide. With my point of view on God, I am incapable of accepting the claims of Joseph Smith and the Mormons, be they however so convincing. If God does not exist, how can Joseph Smith’s story have any possible validity? I will look everywhere for explanations except to the ONE explanation that is the position of the church. You in your turn will always be on the other side of that Great Divide.

Note the direction the conclusion and evidence flow. Morgan has a single organizing principle (God cannot exist) and he arranges the evidence and documentation around that. Historians like to pretend that they gather the evidence and sources, make objective judgments about how to weigh these, and see what falls out. That is not what Brodie did (though she pretended she did), and that is not what Bushman did (he admits he did not at the beginning of the book). It is impossible to entirely escape our biases, and it is dishonest to pretend we don’t have them.

Bushman writes,

A rhetorical problem vexes anyone who writes about the thought of Joseph Smith. Are his ideas to be attributed to him or to God? Some readers will consider it obvious that the revelations came from Joseph Smith’s mind and nowhere else… It would seem judicious to compromise with “Joseph Smith purportedly received a revelation about a heaven with three degrees of glory.”

But there are reasons for not inserting a disclaimer every time a revelation is mentioned, no matter how the reader or writer feels about the ultimate source. The most important is that Joseph Smith did not think that way… To get inside the movement, we have to think of Smith as the early Mormons thought of him and as he thought of himself–as a revelator.

…The skeptics in that world must be allowed to speak, to be sure, and the contradictions and incongruities in the Prophet’s record have to be dealt with. But the book attempts to think as Smith thought and to reconstruct the beliefs of his followers as they understood them. (p. xxi-xxiii)

I don’t think that a biography, or a look at primary sources, can ever really tell us if a religious leader was divinely called. It can tell us he was not, if we uncovered evidence of duplicity or fabrication. But it cannot tell us if he was. I know that my perspective is skewed, but I am familiar with almost all of the anti-Mormon literature out there, and I have discovered nothing there or in my own research about Joseph Smith that proves he was a false prophet or even a fallen prophet. I know others draw opposite conclusions from the same evidence, but I mention my perspective only to say that it is possible to believe in the divinity of Joseph Smith’s calling without being kept ignorant from the same details others say cause them to conclude he was not. The evidence, in other words, is inconclusive.

The Joseph Smith biographer cannot prove he was a prophet, and no biographer has proved (to my satisfaction, anyway) that he was not. So what good is biography, or history? Any production will leave the reader hanging: was Joseph Smith a prophet or not? The best the believer can get from a biography is: He could have been. A biography may not help us know the religious truth about him, but it can help us know his heart. As Bushman writes,

Mormon children grow up knowing Joseph Smith as well as they know George Washington. He is referred to familiarly as “Joseph,” or, a bit more formally, as “the Prophet,” never as the distancing “Smith.” Even Fawn Brodie, who was on her way out of Mormonism when she wrote her landmark biography… [called] him “Joseph.”… Perhaps [my] attempt to draw close to Joseph Smith will reveal a little more of the heart that he said no one knew. (p. xxii)

For those of us who feel an affection towards Joseph Smith, we can develop a kinship for him.  For someone who felt so misunderstood, and yet who loved and revered friendship and friends so much, that seems like a proper way to honor his memory and sacrifice. A good biography can help us “know Brother Joseph again.”

For the unbeliever, the best he has found in the biographies is a bunch of vague pseudo-psychology, environmentalist absorption, or both, that does not add up to a coherent argument and explanation. For instance, Bernard DeVoto did not distinguish himself as an English stylist with this turn of phrase, but it sums up the best thesis quite nicely, when he says the Book of Mormon was produced from Joseph Smith’s epileptic seizures as “a yeasty fermentation, formless, aimless, and inconceivably absurd.”

A demanding reader, even one sympathetic to DeVoto’s perspective, would not be satisfied with this explanation. (Not to mention that there is no evidence he suffered from epilepsy.) Later books have tried to show what might have influenced Joseph Smith in producing the Book of Mormon, but none has succeeded in showing how he could have done it (i.e., when, where, how, with whom, and so on). (For more on this, read Robert Rees’ article in Dialogue that you can find here.)

The situation is hardly better for the believer. When Joseph Smith tells us he translated the Book of Mormon “by the gift and power of God,” that might be all we need to know, but it certainly isn’t all we want to know. Details from other witnesses only provide slightly more detail.

When I was on my mission, out my very first day, we sat and talked with this nice old lady. We just finished bearing our testimonies when she bore hers. She talked about a difficult and lonely time in her life, after her son had died, thereafter quickly followed by her husband, and then she fell ill. During her convalescence, she told us through tear-filled eyes, the Virgin Mary appeared to her and comforted her, and bore witness of the love of God.

At the time, this story troubled me. It seemed there was some equivalence between the two testimonies, yet I considered mine “true” and hers “false.” I asked my companion about it. He rolled his eyes and said, “Oh, Elder Bennion, you’ll soon realize that every old lady in France has seen the Virgin Mary!” And so it was!

With the benefit of further experience, I now realize there is no reason not to believe that old woman; why couldn’t the Virgin Mary actually have appeared to her? I now rather like to think that would be a nice thing for her to be doing. But either way, there’s really no way for me to tell if the little old lady really saw the Virgin, or if she just hallucinated it out of her grief. As a historian, I could write it either way, and no amount of evidence could really rule one or the other out.

The First Vision, for all its power as the founding vision of Mormonism, has to go into the same category. I have been to the Sacred Grove, and there is no silhouette of God the Father and Jesus Christ burned in any of the undergrowth or on the side of any of the trees. We can’t know from any available evidence if he really saw it, made it up, or was crazy.

If that’s all Joseph Smith had ever claimed, we could more easily dismiss him, but also be less offended by his claims. They could remain in the realm of the mystical or visionary. But then he claimed to find some actual gold plates, dug out of actual dirt near his home. But these gold plates are conveniently no longer with us. He also recovered a Urim and Thummim and a sword of Laban (both unavailable for inspection). He translated a book that claimed to describe the actual history of some Jews who traveled to the new world, and built cities and fought wars. And no glyph has turned up with “Zarahemla” written on it (perhaps for good reason–scroll to the heading “Cities” for the discussion). But would it change any minds if one did? We have turned up stones with “Nahom” written on them, and the conversion statistics, when I last consulted them, don’t seem to have jumped appreciably. As I argued here, if he had confined the subject of his revelations to the immaterial realms, it would be easier to pick-and-choose and not have to face head on his claims to be a Prophet. Instead, it’s almost like he teases us with some very concrete claims and objects, but ones which we are expected to largely take on faith.

I say “largely” because we do have something very real, and still with us, that can help us resolve this burning question. It’s the book we’ve been circling around for a long time, and I’m not talking about Bushman’s book or any other biography of Joseph. We may not have the plates, but we have the book Joseph claimed to translate from them. It is available for anyone to read and ponder. A careful examination of the contents, and prayerful consideration of the same, remains the best possible test of Joseph Smith’s claims.