In Search of the Historical Joseph…

RussellMormon 19 Comments

If you think the title tips my hand, hold onto your hats.  Indeed, I am consciously borrowing from Albert Schweitzer’s famed work, In Search of the Historical Jesus, itself the culmination of a century of scholarship that had essentially denied the Messianic nature, instead promoting an entire movement of scholarship that promoted the Gospels as an ex post facto radical recreation of this Jewish charismatic, social revolutionary’s mild-mannered teachings.  Given the paucity of evidence concerning him, these scholars concluded, we might as well give up on ever getting into Jesus’ head in any traditional sense.  Schweizer’s summation, as goodly and moral a man he was, made for rather pessimistic conclusions: the search for the historical Jesus had been an abject failure.  But fortunately, we don’t have to deal with more modern figures, such as Joseph Smith, do we?  While we may not be able to find the coordinates of the First Vision or the dimensions of the gold plates, we can at least attest to his chracacter.  We have witnesses, documents, remembrances, affadavits, right?  Don’t believe me?  Good, because you shouldn’t…

Invite a Dialogue editor and a full-time seminary instructor to have a conversation and you’ll know immediately what I mean (I have been worked closely and even been familially acquainted with both, so I know whereof I speak).  Richard Bushman’s biography has been spurned by some prominent individuals, yet these individuals are as moral, upstanding, and even brilliant of men in the Church.  And the intelligentsia’s faction of the Church’s broad collection often turns its nose in disdain at those misguided “white shirts” of Church administration.  All of them good, upstand men/women…yet the lingering wedge remains: “What of the historical Joseph?”  Was Joseph the solemn boy who loped around the store, according some remembrances?  Or was he the rambunctious teen who literally beat fellow workers into submission?  A philanderer?  A torn, but zealous man who had to swallow some bitter pills of revelation?

I know it’s kitsch for the super-orthodox wing of the Church to say: “It doesn’t really matter what Joseph did/said/thought/ate/sneezed; I know he’s a prophet.”  We intelligentsia bristle with frustration at such small-minded and intellectually unrespectable ideas.  At best, we grant them a little deconstructionist leeway, but inwardly, we tend to shake at our heads at them…

Yet I wonder if there is some intellectual merit to what they say.  Let’s, for a moment, set aside the Von Rankean school of historiography (historians should find out “what really happened.”)  Let’s, for an oh-so-brief moment, consider the important role symbols play throughout holy writ.  Historians have noted that Joseph acts as a Rorschach test for religious understanding.  And it might just be possible that God intended it that way.  Sure, Joseph existed.   But the attempts to capture his essence have all failed–some more respectably than others.  Even the best efforts, such as Bushman’s–don’t draw the conclusion of his prophetic status.  Rather, they leave a little spark of mystery in Joseph’s mind–a spark which has lit both the fires of mobs and the fires of faith.

Is it possible that Joseph as a person is less significant than Joseph as a symbol?  Could it be that God is more interested in historical memory than in historicity?  If we are willing to grant God a hand in the gentle crafting of an entire race of men through organic evolution–in spite of all the oppositional variables where evolution could have gone wrong (a feat to which, incidentally, even Richard Dawkins gives lip-service)– can we not also grant him a similar hand in guiding the historical memory of Joseph?

The idea is subversive, and one that might elicit scoffs from both Dialogue reader and “white shirt” alike–including me (a fellow who happened to wear a white shirt while working for a Dialogue editor).   But there’s an attractiveness to it that I cannot dismiss.

Comments 19

  1. I find this a very interesting idea. In a post a while back, I remember discussing the idea that if two people witness an event and tell slightly different versions of it, can we ever know what really happened? History is an interpreted art, like many others, that is in the “eye of the beholder.” That is the reason why different authors can have such different views on the same event or person.

    I like the symbol idea because it looks at the results of Joseph rather than the person, himself. I think that can eliminate the speculation about his ultimate character, which, I might add, is not an issue for me personally. In many ways, Jesus, himself, is a representation of what is written about Him. Unless of course, we have first-hand knowledge of Him.

  2. I’m sorry but this seems like just another attempt to excuse the more questionable parts of Joseph Smith’s life. That’s going to be a stumbling block for non believers inspite of the successes of the modern church and something to ignore or justify for believers. Seeing God as being this devious in trying to “guide the historical memory of Joseph?” is a bit of a stretch for me.

  3. Very good points.
    It would be comfortable for some to respect/revere the office/position of prophet of the last dispensation and ignore Joseph as a person with all his human flaws.
    Personally, I choose to revere and respect the whole person due to his fore-ordination.
    Different authors indeed tell different stories describing the same thing and Brother Joseph was no different. Consider his accounts of the 1st vision…all different but none conflicting.
    As hokey as it may be, I think that we have to get a personal witness, as opposed to a comfortable historical view. 2 cents

  4. GBSmith’s comment resonates to my inner skeptic.

    …my inner violent streak wants to read more about this “rambunctious boy who literally beat fellow workers into submission.”

    my inner child hearkens back to English class lessons about symbolism in novels and thinks all of that symbolism was really farfetched and most of it wasn’t all that obvious. He thinks they just put those symbols there to make kids’ lives suck.

    In the end, Joseph Smith as a symbol seems to face a similar fate. >_>

  5. Interesting to read, but for all of us our legacy become an accumulation of life events rather than single episodes. Please judge me on my life as a whole.

  6. Russell, this reminds me of something Joseph Campbell says in the Power of Myth: “Read other people’s myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts–but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message.” Campbell would say myth (or symbolism) is more important than historicity because it elevates one out of the facts and into the themes that are universal for all living humans. I think that’s the entire point of religion–to elevate humanity through powerful storytelling. Mormons even do this with their own lives; we create our own life mythology that is not necessarily true (or false); people do it because it adds (or even creates) meaning and relates to the grander story (or “plan,” if you will).

    The only problem comes in when there is a clash between stories (e.g. the middle east or evangelicalism vs. Mormonism) and people forget that these are stories, not facts. Do they have some basis in reality? Probably most of them do. But it is the interpretation of the facts and the creation of the story that we mis-label “fact,” giving us a mistake or overinflated sense of superiority, patriotism, and phantom adversaries.

  7. I wonder why we tend to treat questions of faith (which can demand not merely one’s heart and soul, but on a practical level, one’s time, money and pleasures) – so existentially, so freely, without much hard-line accounting. But if someone owes us ten thousand dollars, we seem to be able to scrounge up every detail of the transaction, for which we have enough documentation – recorded and written out – to start a respectable bonfire.

    Could it be that, in matters of faith, we suppose that the hard details and the documentation are simply not available, so we must protect our investing instead of our investments?

  8. Have you ever seen the movie “big fish”? It doesn’t matter what kind of fish stories or embellishments were told if the core claims are real. What people really need to do is to get past the big fish stories and come to an understanding by the gift of the holy ghost the reality underlying the fish stories, that Joseph Smith was fundamentally a prophet, and had authority.

  9. Aboz,


    What would happen if the core claims were embellishment?

    just wondering.


    people seem to have “understandings” from the Holy Ghost (or related entities in other traditions) for a *lot* of things.

    they can’t all be true, can they?

  10. Re #3:
    “Brother Joseph was no different. Consider his accounts of the 1st vision…all different but none conflicting.”

    In the interest of keeping this an honest discussion and in fairness to those who have heard of different accounts of the first vision, but not actually read them. I think you have to take a very narrow (read, ignore the conflicting points) view of those accounts to not see the glaring conflicts between them.

    For example, in the 1832 account JS goes to great lengths to explain how he came to the conclusion that all religions he was familiar with were false and therefore incapable of helping him be forgiven of his sins. He therefore is going to pray to find out if he can be forgiven of his sins. The answer is yes, his sins are forgiven. In the 1838 account, he doesn’t know which church to join, (it hasn’t even occurred to him that they all might be wrong) he therefore goes to pray to find out which church to join and accordingly is answered to join none of them. Also in the 1832 account we see were Christ calls Joseph his son to start the vision, where as the 1838 account, the father introduces Christ as His son. JS age is also problematic although not as glaring a conflict as the purpose and background for going to pray and the answers received.

    These are either two different visions entirely or they are conflicted. We can argue about whether not mentioning two personages in the 1832 account, seeing angles, or being overcome by the devil is a conflict or just an omission. But you can’t say there are not serious conflicts between versions in what he knew before he prayed, what motivated him to pray, what he asked, what answers he got, and who actually spoke to him and why.

    Ok, end of thread jack. Please continue with the discussion… 🙂

  11. With respect Doug..I’ll use an oversimplified analogy and be short.
    If I were to explain to you what I did yesterday, explain to my boss what I did yesterday, and explain to my wife what I did yesterday…you might well hear 3 different stories. Just because I don’t tell my boss about what I picked up at the grocery store, my wife about the problems at work, or you about what I watched on television would not make any of the stories conflicting.
    I submit that there might well be further details about the 1st vision that Brother Joseph has not told us. If we find someday that…I don’t know…maybe Jesus was chewing gum and discussed Texas Hold ’em with Joseph for awhile…that still would not conflict with any of the earlier versions.
    …my 2 cents

  12. Bruce I totally understand your point. The problem I see rising is we only teach one history. This is exactly how it happened on this date and by these people. You really have to do your own research to find out “oh maybe there are two accounts of the first vision that are different.”

    I understand why there could be different accounts but why is it taught in the church that the story happened exactly a specific way? When we don’t really know how it happened. I know history is biased, all of it is It is based on interpretations of events.. even church history.

    But if I bring up the fact that the history of the church could be little different than what we are taught, I’m treated as though I’m an apostate. I just wish that the church would just acknowledge the fact that the history may be a little inaccurate.

  13. Post


    I can sympathize with you to a degree. Even I’ll acknowledge that for this memory business really to be meaningful, we have to be cognizant of the documents before us. Before one can revel in the ambiguity, one must know that there is ambiguity. As far as the first vision accounts, I don’t want to thread-jack either. But I will say that there are as many problems with those who cry foul at the changes as those among the Church who remain naive to the differences. Incidentally, Marvin Hill provides an excellent historiographical discussion on interpretations of the First Vision in Dialogue, Summer 1982.

    Yet my very point was as Hawk pointed out–if we become bogged down in parsing first vision accounts, we might be missing the point of the Joseph that exists in the eyes of God.

  14. Have you read Jorge Luis Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”? It has some subversive ideas about the type of historicity versus historical fact–how what we believe ultimately creates the past from which we collectively descend.

  15. Bruce in Montana,

    I think you missed the point of my post. I didn’t say that something didn’t happen, I merely pointed out that different versions of the event do conflict with each other. What you’re saying is that there may be a very logical explanation for the contradictions. I’m not trying to make this a first vision discussion so I won’t go further into it; my point is simply that there are conflicts in the statements. How one deal’s with the conflicts depends on your bias, but let’s at least agree that there are significant differences that do conflict with each other.


  16. Rick G. – “Could it be that, in matters of faith, we suppose that the hard details and the documentation are simply not available, so we must protect our investing instead of our investments?” I think your question is valid, but the historical JS is probably irrelevant to my own Cost-Benefit Analysis. The costs: 10% of my gross income, 3+ hrs per wk of my life, and ad hoc requests for meals or service assignments. The benefits: a network of kindhearted and sometimes like-minded individuals who are willing to help us whenever we need, time for introspection, opportunities to serve people I might not otherwise know, living examples that help my children be better people, pleasant advice from kindly grandparental figures every six months, and a positive peer network for my budding teens. For me that works, but I realize it would not for all.

  17. “Historians have noted that Joseph acts as a Rorschach test for religious understanding.”

    Oooh, that’s a nice (and apt) analogy. Can you tell me the source of it?

  18. Post


    That quotation is from Kathleen Flake; she used it during the PBS documentary on the Church. And since it’s just her, I should really say “a historian” has noted…but hey, I need to enhance my own importance at every turn, right?

  19. Thanks, Russell! It sounded (very) vaguely familiar, but I’ll go back and take another look at Flake’s comments.

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