Monday, May 01, 2006

Joseph Smith: The Most Influential American of the 19th Century?

I have been reading Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Lyman Bushman. It was published in 2005 by Alfred A. Knopf. I am about half way through the book and am enjoying it very much.

In the prologue, Bushman recounts the story from 1844 when Charles Francis Adams (son of President John Quincy Adams) meet Joseph Smith. He also includes some of the text that Adams wrote almost forty years later about the meeting.

Adams wrote, "It is by no means improbable that some future text-book, for the use of generation yet unborn, will contain a question something like this: What historical American of the 19th century has exterted the most powerful influence upon the destinies of his countrymen? And it is by no means impossible that the answer to the interrogatory may thus be written: Joseph Smith the Mormon prophet" (p. 5).

Looking back from the early 21st century, I have to wonder if Adams was not right. Was Joseph Smith the most influential American of the 19th century?

I am not Mormon. As such, I do not regard Joseph Smith as a divinely inspired prophet. However, I also do not believe he was necessarily a con man either as many think. I think it is possible that he truly believed what he said but that does not require me to have to acknowledge he was a prophet of God. And of course the question of how authentic he was is not at all relevant to the question of how influential he was.

As it is, the Mormons survived Smith's death in 1844. They moved west and thrived. The Latter-day Saints have spread their message all over the world. The Mormons have played an important part in American history and they continue to be an important part of the Republican electoral coalition today. Joseph Smith remains an influential man.

But is he more influential than other great 19th century Americans? This is where it gets tough. I think at this point that Abraham Lincoln has him beat. President Lincoln saved the Union which survives to this day to be the only remaining superpower. That has to rank him #1. Other 19th century Americans such as President's Jefferson and Grant, Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, and even Brigham Young may come out on top of Smith as well.

However, in centuries and millennia yet to come, will Smith be looked back upon as the most influential 19th century American? If there is no United States of America 1000 years from now and the Mormon Church is still thriving, would that then make Joseph Smith the most influential of 19th century Americans?

If enough time passes, I think Adams may be right about Joseph Smith and his place and history. My thanks to Bushman for sharing this encounter between Smith and Adams in his book.


VanillaMan said...

I often saw Smith as a Lenin-like figure and Young as the Stalin-like figure in Mormon history.

Lenin and Smith inspired, and Stalin and Young enforced. Neither the USSR or LDS church would exist today without them.

After Smith's death, Young took the majority of followers to an extremely remote part of the world. Young used his Day-n-Nighters to enforce his rule over Salt Lake and his country of Deseret. There was no escape from Young's grasp for those who wished to desert the Church.

It has become easy to prop up Smith as a saint. But his work would have been as forgotten as the many other religious cults that popped up in the US during the early 19th Century, if it wasn't for Brigham Young's dictatorial administration creating the LDS church and Utah.

Miland said...

"It has become easy to prop up Smith as a saint. But his work would have been as forgotten as the many other religious cults that popped up in the US during the early 19th Century, if it wasn't for Brigham Young's dictatorial administration creating the LDS church and Utah."

This is probably true but it is true of all influential people. Lincoln was an influential president because he was smart enough to appoint good generals. Had he lost the Civil War, he would not be considered influential today despite his good qualities.

This is the same for Smith. Had he not recruited Young and given him leadership roles, Smith may well be a minor footnote in history today. Part of what makes someone being remembered as an influential leader is how wise they are in picking prominent followers as well as luck.

VanillaMan said...

Brigham Young was not selected for leadership by Joseph Smith. Brigham Young was a Morman missionary to Great Britain and out of sight for years during the turbulent Nauvoo years. After Smith's death, the Church fractured and nearly died. There was a struggle over leadership at this time since Smith left no one in charge. Smith was a young man and did not expect to die in Carthage Illinois. The entire Smith death scenario was due to the exposure of Smith's newly christened, "Spriritual Wifeism", polygamous decree. Smith's wife denounced the Prophet and the church when she discovered her husband's adulterous relationships, and Smith covered his numerous affairs with this polygamous proclamation. The turmoil generated by this act forced Governor Ford of Illinois to send in troops to quell acts of violence taking place in Nauvoo. Smith was jailed in Carthage, and waited for his posse of "Day-n-Nighters" to break him out of jail so that he could cross the Mississippi into either Iowa or Missiouri, which Smith did on numerous previous occasions to escape local prosecution. However, locals were waiting for his posse and during the gun fight, Smith was killed while trying to escape.

He did not expect to die. He had no one in charge of the Church to succeed him. His only mention of successor was in his Book of Mormon which mentions that the Prophet was hierarchical. So, expectations were that his son would become church leader, although he was only 12 years old.

Hundreds of Mormons left the church in disgust over polygamy and Smith's demise. The remainder split over having a 12 year old leader and those who wanted another church elder.

Young stepped into this breach, took those who did not become the Reformed LDS church, (now the Church of Jesus Christ), and moved his group across the United States in waves over the next few years into the Salt Lake Valley to create a new Mormon nation, Deseret.

We now have an LDS church sandwiched between a newly revitalized Church of Jesus Christ and the polygamous Fundamental LDS groups. With DNA evidence clearly discrediting the entire Book of Mormon at this time, the LDS church in Salt Lake is trying to figure out a way to become more like the Church of Jesus Christ, that is, a Christian church, Bible based. For the first time, a portrait of Jesus was hung in Temple Square, and the LDS leadership is attempting an extremely difficult task of walking a tightrope between it's history and it's future. There are several tenants of Morman belief that do not work in Christianity, yet with continuing evidence that the Book of Mormon is a hoax, there is a real need to move this dynamic church into another faith. These are very good people, and I wish them the very best in this quest.

Miland said...

Thanks for the additional history vanillaman.

"Brigham Young was not selected for leadership by Joseph Smith."

I stand corrected. Of course, that fact can also be used to argue that Smith was highly influential. Despite not leaving a good succession plan in place, the church he started still thrived after his death.

spackman said...

Vanillaman, where exactly are you getting your information? In my study of American religions i've come across many separate accounts of the mormon church and what you described isn't anywhere accurate. I visited Temple Square in 1964 and I can assure you that there were many pictures of Jesus, just as there was on the back of a card one of their missionaries left on my door two months ago. As for the Book of Mormon the only "proof" against it has been private and inconclusive DNA study performed by an ex-mormon. Their church wouldn't be growing so fast if it were that easy to disprove. Myself being Jewish, I don't particularly believe that the Book of Mormon is what the mormon's believe it to be, but any disproving theory must be concrete, otherwise you're just filling the internet with more trash.

David Milo Pearson said...

I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, commonly called "Mormon" by those not of our faith for our acceptance of "The Book of Mormon" as holy writ along with the Bible.

I, too, have read Bushman's "Rough Stone Rolling". While Bushman covers a lot of ground not covered by others in one book, I find that Bushman tends to pander to non-believers in his book far too much. But he is fair and accurate in many areas—but not in all.

VanillaMan is way off base. The Lenin-Stalin comparison is 100% smear with no truth whatsoever behind it. There is more of a connection between Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler than there is between Smith & Young versus Lenin & Stalin.

One must consider the either divine inspiration or sheer genius of what Joseph Smith did, and what it has lead to.

Joseph Smith, for example, never built a church building, other than two temples. In 1831, in the first year after the Church was organized, Joseph Smith received a revelation to build a temple. During the 14 years he lived after the formation of the Church, two temples of considerable size and expense (especially for the day and the circumstances of LDS Church members) was phenomenal.

But building edifices was not the genius or divine inspiration. It is what the temples then and now are used for. For diseminating eternal truths in ritual revelations to church members, helping them get and keep in focus what their eternal existence (both pre- & post-mortal) is for.

Furthermore, the doctrine, as revealed in The Book of Mormon, Doctrine & Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price is incredible. And, interestingly, each of the three exclusively LDS "Mormon" books of scriptures are each quite different in form, content, and style one from the other.

Also, Smith's explanations of things such as the relationship between the Melchizedek and Aaronic (Levitical) priesthoods, as mentioned in the Bible, is incredible.

Even the size, number and functions of different priesthood quorums has marks of 'genius' or 'divine genius' (in my opinion) in them.


David Milo Pearson said...


Brigham Young did not miss, despite Vanillaman's claim, the Kirtland period of problems. He left largely after the effects of that, with other apostles, to do missionary work in the British Isles. The 'genius' or 'divine inspiration' of that missionary effort, which was launched among the greatest difficulty (remember, the effects of the Panic of 1837 have been said to have been as great or greater than those of the Great Depression of the 1930's), and with great turmoil in the (LDS) church, the many new adherents to the LDS faith, which Charles Dickens, after a visit on a ship filled with Mormon converts leaving Liverpool, called "the pick and flower of England", came in numbers and with skills and talents that helped save the LDS Church before, during and after its westward trek to the Rocky Mountains.

For being a backwoods "no nothing" of the American frontier (had no more than a 3rd grade education), and, at the time Joseph Smith began the translation from plates of gold of The Book of Mormon, Martin Harris, his main financial supporter at that time, said that Joseph Smith did not even know how to write a "bill of hand" (a check).

On average, Smith translated 6-8 pages per day of a book that has a meandering, and yet never dropped story line, and has doctrines and tidbits from ancient American history strung throughout it.

And, regarding the alleged Book of Mormon/mitrochondial DNA "problem", there really is none, when one is sufficiently versed on the profound limitations of coming to any conclusions using mitrochondrial DNA that the detractors have alleged. For example, I have read in recent years where mothers have been proven not to have been the mothers of children they gave birth to! But, they did! And the reason for this apparent discrepancy was later found. Such is the case with the mitrochondrial DNA issue and indigenous Americans in regards to The Book of Mormon and their "Jewishness".

Many, many other proofs and evidences I could and would gladly give.


Unknown said...

I find it interesting that vanillaman says Smith was killed while trying to escape. He was shot through a window while in the room he was being held in. The door was closed. Seems to me he was trying to avoid death rather than trying to escape.