After finishing Arrington's biography of Brigham Young last month, I moved The Prophet Puzzle: Interpretive Essays on Joseph Smith (Signature, 1999) into my Book of the Month slot (upper left). I bought the book a couple of years ago, but with the recent JS conference and Bushman's upcoming biography, now is the time to read it. While many of the essays were published earlier as articles in Dialogue or the Journal of Mormon History, the book as a whole is still useful for laying out many of the issues a modern (i.e., post-Brodie) JS biographer must confront. I'll use my reading of the essays to put together a list of questions I'll bring to Bushman's JS bio when it comes out later this year.
THE TITLE OF THE BOOK comes from an essay of the same name published in 1974 by Jan Shipps. She argued that historians ought to be able to come up with a more integrated, comprehensive portrait of Joseph Smith than the one-sided narratives that then existed. The critical biographies needed to come to grips with the sincerely spiritual and religious aspect of Joseph's character, which did not figure into the simple view that he was either a fraud or a charlatan. At the same time, the faithful biographies needed to recognize and give weight to Joseph's early experiences with glass-looking and treasure seeking as these activities relate to his later experience with seer stones (including the "two stones in silver bows" later referred to as the Urim and Thummim) and golden plates (which he found "deposited in a stone box" in a hill close to his home near Palmyra, New York) (JS-H 1:35, 51).
In "The Prophet Puzzle Revisited," originally published in Dialogue in 1998, Dan Vogel takes up the challenge of Shipps' essay and tries to sketch some answers (the link is to an earlier version of the paper, delivered at the MHA meetings in 1996). While not a theory likely to win applause from the faithful, Vogel at least grants Joseph a good deal of religious sincerity in the attempt to reconcile the two opposing views of him. Vogel points out that both seer stones and treasure seeking are depicted at various points in the Book of Mormon narrative, supporting his reliance on those activities as features to be integrated into his portrait of Joseph Smith. He summarized his view as follows: "I suggest that Smith really believed he was called of God to preach repentence to a sinful world but that he felt justified in using deception to accomplish his mission more fully."
Vogel recently published a biography of the young Joseph Smith (covering events through 1831). It was mentioned in several of the presentations at the JS conference last week. An overview of the book is posted at the Signature site. His introduction to the book appears to be a slight rewrite of the 1998 essay we're talking about here, and is nicely formatted for online reading.
QUESTIONS THAT I WILL ADD to my "what to look for in Bushman's biography" list after reading these essays include: (1) What can we draw from the accounts of the 1826 Bainbridge trial to understand Joseph's early experience with folk religion activities? (2) How do those activities flow into similar activities in relation to the Book of Mormon in 1827-29? (3) What is the import of Book of Mormon passages that seem to describe similar activites?
[I'm going to defer comment discussion until I finish the whole book. If you feel that you really must make a comment, send me an email.]