[See Part 1] Here is my second post on The Prophet Puzzle: Interpretive Essays on Joseph Smith, my current Book of the Month. I will make brief comments on several of the more challenging essays. The "puzzle," quoting from my Part 1, is to come up with "a more integrated, comprehensive portrait of Joseph Smith than the one-sided narratives that then existed." The essays (most of which were previously published in Dialogue) do a fair job of highlighting some of the less appreciated features of Joseph Smith's life and personality that require consideration in such an integrated biography.
In "Joseph Smith: America's Hermetic Prophet," Lance S. Owens gives a drive-by review of esoteric movements that may have influenced Joseph's thinking: early American folk religion (aka magic), Freemasonry, Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), and Hermeticism. This is the kind of stuff that 19th-century mainline denominations worked overtime to excise from Protestant thought and practice, yet we still have modern relics of this kind of stuff with astrology, occult religions, and the remnants of Freemasonry and the Rosicrucians. This line of thinking for Mormonism and Joseph Smith is probed in more detail in books by Quinn, Bloom, and Brooke.
I enjoyed Eugene England's "How Joseph Smith Resolved the Dilemmas of American Romanticism," a short essay exploring how Joseph's developing theology reflected themes from both Romantic optimism and Classical realism. England helps the reader glimpse the scope of Joseph's eclectic thinking, which seems capable of offering almost any interested reader the germ of some enlightening idea or doctrine. England also laments the fact that LDS scholars have done so little to connect Joseph's thinking with the currents of American thinking in the 19th century:
It is only a bit disconcerting that such important new perspectives, which I think are a central key to understanding Joseph Smith ... should have come from non-Mormons. But it is seriously troubling that Mormon scholars have not yet been as effective as Shipps and Bloom in countering the influence of Brodie and laying groundwork for breaking its hold on non-Mormon thinking with new paradigms for thinking about Joseph Smith.
In "The Psychology of Religious Genius" (follow link for online text of the essay), Lawrence Foster offers a fairly restrained inquiry into Joseph Smith's psychology during the years 1841-44 in Nauvoo. He suggests the emergence of manic-depressive symptoms (or what is now called bipolar affective disorder) in some of Joseph's more exaggerated behaviors, the primary example being his adventures with secret polygamy. A more critical formulation is given by Robert D. Anderson in "Toward an Introduction to a Psychobiography of Joseph Smith." Anderson seeks to defend psychoanlysis from Mormon suspicion, then sketches his view of how Joseph's early traumatic family experiences (e.g., the horrific leg surgeries, the tragic death of his older brother Alvin) contributed to a deeply flawed adult personality. Anderson's thinking may be creative, even suggestive, but it still comes off too often as psychobabble: "If the hypomania of Ammon, as an alter-ego for Joseph Smith, cannot be connected to specific incidents in the latter's life, then the diagnosis is likely Bipolar Affective Disorder." Well, of course—what else could it be?
Finally, mention must be made of "The Book of Abraham, Secrets, and Lying for the Lord," by Susan Staker. This is one of the few essays in the book not previously published elsewhere, but it's a killer. The author makes no particular effort to paint the strange events of the later Nauvoo period in sympathetic colors, but frankly there isn't much that can be done with secret polygamy short of blaming God. This is exactly what she speculates is the import of the Book of Abraham, published at a critical time in mid-1842. This essay is not light Sunday afternoon reading.
Conclusion. There are several additional questions I will add to my "what to look for in Bushman's biography" list (begun in Part 1) after reading these essays: (4) What role will be ascribed to Joseph's encounter with folk magic and Freemasonry as they affected his later religious ideas? (5) How far will Bushman go in tying Joseph's religious ideas to 19th-century American intellectual and religious themes? (6) Will he touch the third rail of orthodox JS biography, inquiring carefully into the psychology and personality of Joseph Smith? (7) What exactly will he make of the origin, conduct, and eventual exposure of Nauvoo secret polygamy?
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