Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A New Plan of Attack (Part 1)

In the mid-1820s, when Joseph Smith Jr grew up, the United States found itself in a period of convulsive change. The Revolutionary War and its aftermath, the war of 1812, had severed the cords to what had been the cultural place of origin of the majority of the settlers: Western Europe. Issues were complicated by the remaining large groups of Native Americans and the rising number of African American slaves.

The rapid expansion in productive land use, the wealth to be obtained in these areas, and the potential for living comfortably was an impetus that did not always fulfill itself. It was part of the Puritan inheritance of New England and its settlers, that questions of economic success translated almost directly into questions of identity. Thus, any reversals, be they of the meteorological or the financial type (market saturation in Ginseng, for example), caught the young Nation on shaky ideological feet.

This drama of identity played out at multiple levels, including the scientific, where efforts like the expeditions of Lewis and Clark, the scientific description of the American fauna and flora, or the mapping of the local antiquities, as well as the founding of museums for both artistic and scientific purposes were attempts to connect with the European establishment in these disciplines.

Equally, this state of socio-economic flux was mirrored at the level of the religious. The Puritan consensus of the majority of the early New England settlers had disintegrated during the Revolutionary War, where the Colonies could not afford to deny voice to compatriots, however different their religious convictions might be. Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists on the established side of the spectrum, and a bewildering variety of millennial, revival and socially-utopian communities on the radical side of the spectrum, vied for the role of explaining what everyone was experiencing. This exasperated the situation instead of providing balm for the bruised identities.

One classical Protestant move was to go back to the Scriptures, widely and continuously read by the majority of the target audiences of these religious efforts, and to separate, once again, the unsoiled core of Christianity from the dung of accretion over the centuries.  One cannot underestimate how little was certain and how much was up for discussion at that point in time. Reformers like Alexander Campbell had no qualms of ditching the inherited religious symbols, including the creeds that had formed the common understanding of diverse denominations such as the Catholic, the Protestant and the autocephalous churches.

Though the critical analysis of the Scriptures, in the style of a Spinoza or the English Deists, had not yet made much impact on the American continent, the Scriptures themselves raised enough puzzles: How complete was the Bible? After all, there were over a dozen books mentioned in the Bible that were not in the canon.  Which in turn raised the disturbing question: Had it been handed down accurately? Why were there so many translations of it? If the Bible was God's definitive word, why was it insufficient to settle the theological questions of the day, such as the appropriate form or phase of life for baptism? And how were the citizens of the young republic supposed to find themselves in these stories of kings and priests of the ancient Fertile Crescent? The very fact that the Indian mounds and artefacts, which the prominent antiquarians were busily chronicling, found no mention in the Bible, must have given pause.

It was in this time of identity ferment that Joseph Smith Jr reached his religious maturation. The son of a family of once comfortable religious seekers, who had been demoted through speculation, family sickness and the agricultural catastrophe of 1816 to the level of day laborers, grew up in Palmyra, NY, where he witnessed the religious commotion and the economic upheavals in the boom and bust cycle of the Erie canal construction first-hand. Smith Jr's personal response to this situation was the Book of Mormon.

At this point, an aside is necessary. Like many other endeavors, the history of early Mormonism has a couple of tar pits that can consume all of a researcher's resources. The first amongst these is whether Joseph Smith Jr was sincere or a scoundrel. The next is the exact relationship between the Golden Plates and the translation of the Book of Mormon. The third is the question of the reasons behind the introduction of polygamy. All of these are questions of the form "what actually happened" and therefore belong in the realm of fiction rather than history. Hercules Poirot and Sherlock Holmes, within their worlds created by Dame Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, will tell us what actually happened. Historians as scientists can only definitively say what did not happen, and then tell stories that stay within these limits of the impossible, knowing full well that there are other stories, bounded by the same limits, equally good or perhaps even better.

In the case of the Book of Mormon, whose mention sparked the aside in the first place, the solution is to invert the question.  In order to settle the issues that needed settling in the minds of Joseph Smith Jr and his contemporaries, any addition to the canon had to satisfy a number of criteria.

First of all, as Jan Shipps has pointed out, it had to be about the New World, that is, it had to describe the Antiquities of the New World and thus show the continuity of the Salvation Narrative of the ancient Fertile Crescent with the new republic. One way to achieve that was to hook the Native Americans, whose identity with respect to the Israelite tribes had been a long-standing issue of research in the Americas, into the genealogy of Jacob. Structurally, this was accomplished via the obscure prophecy of the House of Joseph being a fruitful bough, a branch that reaches over the wall (Gen 49:22-26). This passage dominates the biblical references in the Book of Mormon with over ten references.

Furthermore, the extension to the canon had to sidestep all of the issues of translation that had proven to be such fountains of confusion, insecurity and dissent. Thus, the Book of Mormon was translated in a spiritual fashion, using divinatory devices, thereby guaranteeing the correctness of the translation, as Wunderli pointed out (An Imperfect Book). It was translated from sources that, though witnessed to exist, were not accessible to anyone else, thereby eliminating the possibility of revision. These sources were necessary, because they formed the material arc of continuity between the American antiquities and the beginning 19th century. And finally, the sources were authored in an unknown language, which eliminated the possibility of any alternate expert witness arising from, say, the academic world, to so much as challenge the wording. Reconstructed in this way, we can now understand the terror of the lost one hundred and sixteen pages better: Now there were two translations where there should have been only one. Never was there a book more intended to be unambiguous than the Book of Mormon.

In addition, the extension of the canon had to be in a shape that satisfied the expectations of its Bible-saturated recipients. 2 Kings 22 gave the expectation that covenants and laws of the Lord with his people could be rediscovered. Daniel (Dan 12) had been instructed to seal up his visions in books. Such books were expected to be inaccessible to the learned, e.g. Isaiah 29:11. And Habakkuk (Hab 2) had been instructed to write his vision onto tablets, so plates of metal (gold or brass) was within the range of possibility. Equally, the sticks of Judah and Ephraim (leading Israel) from Ezechiel seemed in support of such a canonic extension.  In general, the Bible was used to shape expectations of interactions with the divine that are remote to present day Bible readers, because the expectations for the contributions of the Biblical books differ. (Even the inclusion of Joseph Smith Jr himself into the book of Genesis, during the Bible revision project, as a prophecy for a son of a Joseph, has a weak precedent in the prophecy of King Josiah of the House of David in 1 Kings 13,  where the name of the predicted child is given.)

With a book structured to settle disputes and reconnect the American churches to the salvation history of Abraham and the early Church of Acts, in a manifestation of the then rampant Primitivism, it would have been folly not to settle other doctrinal issues. As Alexander Campbell pointed out in his famously dismissive pamphlet, this dated the Book of Mormon more than anything else; but again that is looking at the problem from the wrong angle. From the point of view of the Mormon converts, it reinforced the sensation that God was concerned about their questions and had authoritative answers for them that would settle the issues. Campbell, who campaigned so hard for Christian unity, should have appreciated the underlying sentiment more.

Among the primitivist movements, the Mormons were unique in including the Native Americans, in however unflattering a form, into their salvation history. The inclusion of the New World and the explanation for the American antiquities however came at the price of going much farther into the Old Testament than many other Christian denominations and sects had found necessary. This resulted in the importation of theologoumena that set the Mormons at variance with the other Christian denominations, such as temples, priesthoods (whether of Melchizedek or Abraham), and eventually even polygamy. It also imported attitudes that corresponded to the clan- and tribe-centric ethics of the Old Testament, which found expression in notions such as the avenging angels or Danites, and in the expectation for the spoils of the Gentiles. Admittedly, that flame was fanned by the generally retributive stance of the apocalyptic literature, no matter which part of the Bible the specific text came from. As a result, it may not be possible to draw the line between the millennial expectations and the Old Testament matrix correctly for any individual point at hand. But the overall spirit is decidedly less meek and more combative than the majority of the New Testament texts. And this drawing upon Old Testament models is not, as Jan Shipps had assumed, because the Mormons saw themselves as Israel; they always knew that some of the Lamanites and the hidden tribes behind the ice and stone of the poles were the lost tribes of Israel. It was because the Old Testament was part of their inheritance as well, and more helpful in the fights of rejection with the local communities than the pacifist stances of the Gospel.

In setting up his solution in this fashion, Joseph Smith Jr created several problems for himself and his movement, both at the level of the theory and the level of the contents. The monolithic salvation history worked fine for the context of its discovery, and is only problematic now, where great narratives that span the centuries are suspicious in general, because of our increased understanding of how they limit voices within the experience. We prefer our histories, and especially our salvation histories, pluralistic.

The theoretical problems that plagued Joseph Smith Jr during his life-time already were related to his insufficiently developed theory of revelation. His notion of the "burning of the heart" was effectively a popularized form of Spener's pia desideria. Spener had developed that notion precisely to reject the grasp of the governmentally controlled orthodoxy of 17th century Germany, emphasizing the role of the individual over the establishment. Unlike Spener, Smith Jr was not trying to make a free space for personal piety in a socially controlled space, but was trying to externalize and validate a personal experience for the social space. For this, the burning of the heart was an ill-suited tool, leading to continuous charges, even from within the ranks of the converts, that Smith Jr's revelation were too damn convenient to be external to himself.

Furthermore, the reduction to the "burning of the heart" meant that there were no external checks and balances on the contents of revelations. This in turn undermined the monolithic nature of the Book of Mormon that had been built up so carefully. The Mormon convert of 1843, who looked at the condemnation of the concubines of David and Solomon in the Book of Mormon (Jacob 2:24) and the revelation given for the Shakers, to have a wife and to cleave unto her (D&C 42:22) on the one hand,  and then at the revelation regarding Plural Marriage (D&C 132), was once again reduced to trying to sort out the contradictory indications without the help of a canonical scripture. It is not surprising that some of the critics were willing to accept the Book of Mormon as true, while taking a decidedly more critical stance with respect to Joseph Smith Jr's claim to continuous prophecy.

For the continued success of early Mormonism, though, Joseph Smith Jr's ability to reshape the kerygma continuously was unavoidable and possibly a source of its success. Because of the lack of development and penetration of historical criticism, Joseph Smith Jr could not know that he had laden himself with theological models that were not tried and true patterns of action. The description of the early apostolic church in Jerusalem in Acts was an ideal type, constructed by the author as a foil for self-evaluation of the early Christian congregations; not a recipe for running a church qua organization. Joseph Smith Jr learned that early when faced with the charismata of the Campbellite converts in Kirtland, Ohio, and even more so when trying to develop the law of consecration into a funding model for the church.

(See Part 2 for the remainder of this text.)

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