I recently read an excellent OP on By Common Consent by Brad titled Notes Toward a New Vision of the Prophet.  I’ve always had some contradictory thoughts about JS, and I’m not sure this changes them.

JS does seem to be a megalomaniac and opportunist to me, someone who became increasingly blind to the consequences of his actions, although it seems that those traits developed over time; the OP points out the contradictory aspects of JS as part of a progressive story arc; he starts out humble, then gains power & success within the narrow vein of the church he founds, and he essentially redefines what success entails within that framework.

I have often wondered about Joseph’s young death.  Was it because he was off the rails (God whacked him before it could get worse) or did he “graduate” from mortality as Brad suggests (only the good die young) having accomplished all he needed to, or if it was just the consequences of his own human failings?  Clearly #3 was the case (IMO) given the manner of his death, but the question is whether that was also related to #1 or #2, both of which require belief in divine intervention regarding the role of prophet, a notion I’m not 100% sold on since God doesn’t seem to whack the same ones I would at the same times I would (just sayin’).  I have always leaned toward explanation #1 – that God whacked him because he was out of control, gobbling up power, taking wives right and left.  But the OP seems to be offering up #2 (perhaps in combination with #3).

The OP makes 4 main points about Joseph Smith, and my reaction was that this also describes Mormon culture and mindset:

  1. Social Power.  Within the church, we tend to associate social power with worthiness; we revere leaders, and to an extent, leaders come to revere themselves.  As our own scriptures state, leadership goes to people’s heads.  Furthermore, since the beginning of the church, people have wanted to know that their sacrifices were enough.  There was a huge focus on making your calling & election sure, including the performance of second anointings by invitation. This is a manifestation of the desire for social power.  Members are impatient to know our standing, both with church leaders and with God.  We want to cross the finish line in this life.  We don’t want to wait for the judgment day. The commitments we are making are tough, and we want validation!
  2. Prophecy. Brad’s OP points out the familiar story arc of Joseph Smith graduating from the use of props in using his prophetic gift, but he then builds on this with the idea that JS himself eventually became the “source” of revelation, not just its conduit.  This suggestion is a little further out there, yet it merits consideration. Is that not similar to leaders in GC expressing opinions that then become binding. When is the mouthpiece speaking vs. God?  This is a question all thoughtful Mormons must consider, which is why we are encouraged to seek our own revelation in response to instruction from leaders.
  3. Salvation. The OP pointed out that Joseph shifted from a Protestant-tinged salvation (which is frankly the salvation described in the Book of Mormon) to a much more unique and innovative version that is both communal (sealings together, consecration) and yet ultimately individualistic (eternal progression, godhood as exaltation). Even here, though, we see Joseph’s megalomania; it’s not just communal sealing, but being sealed specifically to Joseph that saved, and then other leaders who were considered to have “believing blood” were considered worthy of dynastic legacies through polygamy.
  4. Apotheosis. This encompasses our big break away from Protestant understandings of God toward a God that has a body (as you can see in the shifting accounts of the First Vision). It could be said that this concept of God shifted as the nature of God became better understood and revealed to Joseph Smith (I for one prefer our Human Mormon God to the Protestant gooshy 3-in-1 version that is so contradictory and airy fairy). I accept this progressive arc as part of a growing clarity on JS’s part.

I thought the OP was very fresh. I didn’t fully agree, and I doubtless didn’t fully comprehend, but in my not comprehending, I still gained insight. 

Which of these Mormon concepts do you think is the most impressive?  Do we downplay our unique culture too much?  What do you think of these “arcs” as relates to Mormon culture?  Consider:

  • Are Mormons obsessed with our social status within the church and in the eyes of God to validate our sacrifices?
  • Do we consider prophets both the source and conduit of revelation (whether by my voice or the voice of my servants, it is the same)?
  • Do we still get tripped up in our Protestant roots (overcoming man’s fallen nature) vs. focusing on the exaltation that comes with progression from human to divine?
  • Does our belief in God as a literal father with a body like ours significantly differentiate us from other faiths?