This is the second post in a series (see intro post) looking at Matt Bowman's The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith. Here are five things that I pulled from Chapter One, "Joseph Smith and the First Mormons, to 1831," that you might not know or maybe didn't appreciate.
1. Joesph Smith didn't go to church. His father Joseph Sr. was a Seeker and, at times, a Universalist; his mother Lucy flirted with Methodism and at one point joined the Prebyterians in Palmyra. But the family was never really "churched" and Joseph rarely or never attended regular church services. His Christian background came from family worship and scripture study, revivals he attended, and personal reflection. His mother recalled young Joseph as "much less inclined to the perusal of books than any of the rest of our children, but far more given to meditation and deep study" (p. 12).
2. Joseph wasn't asking, "Which church should I join?" As noted, he really wasn't that into churches. Bowman notes, "Mormons today, confident in the importance of membership in their church, interpret Joseph's confusion as distress over which denomination he should join" (p. 12). According to Joseph's 1832 account (the first written account we have of Joseph's First Vision experience) he already thought "there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament" before his vision. In the vision he was told "thy sins are forgiven thee. go thy
3. Translation or "translation"? The topic of translation and how exactly that term applies to the text of the Book of Mormon written down by (mainly) Oliver Cowdery as it fell from the lips of Joseph Smith has received a lot of attention the last few years. However he did it, he did it: he produced the text. Here is Bowman's excellent paragraph:
Mormons today describe Joseph as the "translator" of the Book of Mormon, because that is the word he and his associates used, but it is not, according to common modern definitions of the word, a strictly accurate description. He made no effort to puzzle out the letters on the plates — indeed, while working with Cowdery he did not look at the plates at all. Rather, much as with the revelations, he spoke a sentence or two, paused for Cowdery to write it, and then spoke another. Though Joseph himself never commented on the process of translation, many of his associates ... seemed to believe that words appeared on the stone as Joseph stared. As one witness, David Whitmer, put it, "One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery." A portion of the manuscript Cowdery transcribed still exists, and the corrections on it indicate that Joseph spelled out proper names .... (p. 23)
4. Supernatural events of the Restoration raise science and religion issues. I often post about science and religion. It is the central issue facing religion and believers of any faith or denomination in the 21st century, although it is rarely addressed in General Conference. The events of the Restoration — the First Vision, the account of how the Book of Mormon text was produced, visits with angels — raise (or should raise) science and religion issues more directly than do general worldview concerns common to all Christians and most believers. Bowman writes, "The story to this point seems incredible to many modern Americans, who instinctively dismiss that which seems irrational or unprovable ..." (p. 23). But that's just because we live in a radically secular era. The question is whether one *should* instinctively dismiss *all* religious or divine or supernatural claims. That raises the question of religious epistemology and of epistemology more generally, how we justify our beliefs about the world, our beliefs about religion, or our beliefs about God. Clearly, we (you, me, anyone) need to give serious consideration to that process, not simply and reflexively dismiss any divine, religious, or supernatural claims.
5. Like a rolling stone. Joseph never stayed in one place for very long. "Joseph Smith was always restless ..." (p. 30). That is certainly evident from the course of Mormon history for the first twenty years. The first big move came quickly: Joseph left New York for Kirtland, Ohio in January 1831. The small group of New York Mormons followed him, to join with a large group of new converts in Ohio that had followed minister Sidney Rigdon into Joseph's new church. They weren't just relocating. "They were going to Kirtland, Ohio, but the city they saw before them was the New Jerusalem" (p. 31).
Links to new essays at the Gospel Topics site at LDS.org:
Links to related DMI posts:
- Vocanism, Mormonism, and Historical Contingency, discussing how the 1815 eruption of Tambora, in Indonesia, caused the 1816 "year without a summer" in New England, the impetus for Joseph Smith's family to move from Vermont to Palmyra later that year.
- Oh How Lovely Was the Meeting, summarizing a paper by D. Michael Quinn establishing that there was indeed a revival (or "camp-meeting") near Palmyra in 1820, as against critics who suggest there was no such revival at that time in the area.
- Punctuation Matters, about John Gilbert, a typesetter who worked in Grandin's print shop in Palmyra and who provided most of the punctuation and paragraphing for the first edition of the Book of Mormon. The manuscript delivered to the print shop was essentially a rough draft, with little or no punctuation or paragraphing.