Lucy Mack Smith had dreams that were very similar to some mentioned in the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith Sr., on the other hand, was much more rational with regards to religion. What else can Dr. Mark Staker tell us about the Smith religious background, following his latest archaeological dig at the “Joseph & Lucy Smith’s Tunbridge Farm?”
GT: Can you can you tell us a little bit more about that story?
Mark: Well, when the Smith family moves to Vermont, there are two major ways of seeing religion. One of those is the Congregationalists…. Universalism moves into Vermont very early, about the same time the Smith family arrives up there, right there in their area. As a matter of fact, they seem to be among the earliest, if not the earliest proponents of it in their region, but it spreads far and wide. There are others who share a similar approach to religion. One of those is the leader of the Green Mountain Boys, Allen and his brother. Ira Allen, and is one of those and his brother is…
GT: Ethan Allen.
Mark: Yeah, thank you, Ethan. So, Ethan is the one that writes a book, but they’re very much in line with the deists. They wouldn’t necessarily probably call themselves deists. I’ve not found in the records that they’re making that direct connection, but they believe in God, that God created them and kind of moved on and it’s not directly involved in our lives now. So, that’s important because they don’t believe in modern revelation. They don’t believe in dreams. They don’t believe in visions. They don’t believe that angels are coming to visit, those kinds of things. Thomas Paine is very much in that same line of thinking. Lucy mentions it in her rough draft of her family history and takes it out later, maybe because it shows kind of a negative aspect of some family contention where family throws in Thomas Paine’s book and tells Joseph, Sr. to read it. Sometimes people have questioned that saying, “Oh, well, Thomas Paine, he is a deist, or even worse. Some people will push it as he’s an atheist and how would Asael encourage his son to read that if he’s truly a religious man?” Well, I think it’s not that he’s accepting everything that Thomas Paine has to say, but he’s emphasizing the Age of Reason that we are rational, reasonable people.
Mark: As a Universalist, they’re thinking about religion in a rational, reasonable way. The Universalists, much like deists, much like Ethan Allen and his brother, Ira Allen, who are writing and very influential in Vermont. They downplay the miraculous, the visionary world, the dreams that you have that are divine intervention and direct interaction with God. So, they even suggest that Thomas Paine does, and so does Ethan Allen, but maybe some of those stories about visions in the earlier Bible material was kind of told in a way back anciently that suggests there’s something about God that wasn’t true, and maybe he didn’t give them visions, either. It depends on how they’re wording it as to what they’re quite suggesting at the time. So, I think that what Asael is saying by that, “Read this,” is not that he’s saying that Jesus Christ is not divine, although there are some Universalists that think that, as well, but most see him as a divine in a way that he’s able to offer salvation to everybody, that the atonement is universal, and that everybody is saved. You find that later on in the dreams that Lucy shares about her husband. She’s suggesting that Joseph has these seven dreams that are important. If you look at them carefully, the first dreams are still Universalist. He has this dream where he’s partaking of this fruit and his family comes to protect the fruit with him. Richard Bushman suggests maybe Lucy’s projecting back, hearing the stories of Lehi and his family.
GT: Yeah, because Lucy’s [dreams] sound a lot like the Book of Mormon, some of her dreams.
Mark: Bushman suggests, well, maybe, you’re four decades later. She does, in lots of other parts of her history, she’s trying to suggest connections between her and Lehi and her husband and the Book of Mormon. She’s using that as a model. Whatever the dream initially was, it may have changed in her memory over 40 years, based on her continual reading in the Book of Mormon, but there must have been some elements of it that she saw as connected, something about concern for family and salvation, which allowed her to later connect those two and remember it that way.
GT: Well, you would think his mother would be more likely to believe in the visions than the Father. Right?
Mark: I imagine she would, in a certain kind of context. I don’t know what Joseph learned in that vision. But there were things that maybe he was unsure that both parents would accept. But I think you’re right. By the time he’s having his visions, that he’s moved fully into his mother’s camp in a lot of ways, but there are enough differences between the two, that it makes him feel like he’s unsure about sharing this with his family until he’s encouraged to do so.
Do you think Joseph was more like his mother or father religiously?
In a previous conversation with historian Dan Vogel, he indicated visions of Jesus were common among Methodists in Joseph Smith’s day and questioned why a Methodist minister would object to Joseph’s account of a vision. I asked Dr. Mark Staker to weigh in on that issue, and Mark tells why he thinks a minister may have been upset. BUt to hear this conversation, you need to be signed up for our newsletter at https://GospelTangents.com .
Mark: Joseph goes to the woods and he begins to pray. What happens? Power falls on him. He says, “an unseen power comes to me that binds my tongue so I can’t speak.” [This is] exactly what the ministers are telling him is going to happen, happens. And what does he do? He prays that God will release him from this power, and no sooner does he pray asking God to release him from this power, that he sees a light. Then he sees the Father. The Father introduces the Son to him, and tells him, “This is my beloved Son, hear him.” Well, the difference between Joseph and all those Methodists who had exactly that same experience was Joseph recognized that power was not what he wanted. It was not of God, and no sooner did he recognize that and asked to be delivered from that, that he has an experience, unlike any experience that anybody else has had. That’s what makes him different than everybody else.
Mark: Imagine when he goes back and tells a Methodist minister, “I went out, began to pray, and you know that power you told me was going to fall on me, that’s the devil.” Is that Methodist minister going to like that? No, naturally he’s going to condemn that, because that’s critical of everything he’s been teaching people and telling him to go out and experience. Imagine that he then says, “And then God, the Father, and Jesus Christ came and appeared to me.” That’s going to contradict all these others who’ve been saying that we don’t have visions like that these days. So, both of those extremes, Joseph’s experience counters, and contradicts, and that everybody is not going to like him, when he begins telling about those details, which is why he waits for so many years to do so because the initial experience was so negative.
GT: So, you would agree with Steven Harper that it was a Methodist minister that condemned him?
Mark: That’s the minister that he would know. That’s the one that he would go to, and we know some of those ministers that were in the area that spring in 1820 that he could possibly have gone to.
What do you think of this scenario?