Saturday, July 29, 2006

Reasons for 1830 Restoration Date

There are two ways to approach the problem of why it took more than a thousand years to restore the gospel to the earth. Since we are dealing with a specific date some have taken the way of Millerites and other millenialists. Looking at Bible text history they have extrapolated the prophetic meaning of 1830 the way others have done so for the return of Christ. Mathematically and textually such mapping of history is not possible beyond recognition of stated events. Even the events mentioned as necessary for signs are sometimes unclear. The other way is to recognized some political or religious events we know of and decide they are necessary prelude to the establishment of the Church. They usually mention only two major circumstances; the Christian Reformation and the U.S. Revolutionary War.

I agree in theory to the second alternative, and have never believed in the first one as reliable. The usual list of prelude ends up short and incomplete. History has a way of compounding itself, sometimes backtracking when it had moved forward. It should be no surprise that I have come up with a more detailed explanation of why it took so long for the Restoration.

The Great Apostasy: We can’t get to the end without starting from the beginning. It is not my intention to talk about how this happened, or when it was complete. Needless to say, the Apostasy is the reason the Restoration was needed. I would even guess that Constantine is the apex of the final demise of the ancient church and the start of the restoration.

Paganism ends and Christianity Spreads: Sadly, it is no surprise that “Mormonism” has been most successful in its short history among those who have already embraced Christianity. It is amazing that the ancient church was spread among a pagan world, but it seems that also brought it to ruin. At any rate, once Christianity became the official religion of the Western World it became both powerful and large. The old enemies were banished from the realm, and only Muslims and barbarians checked the spread of Christianity. A vast field for harvest was formed.

Enlightenment: The dark ages had to end before new light could begin to spread. People in the West started to question everything. Science and philosophy spread new ideas and opened up the way for major changes in history. It challenged the establishments that had ultimate power and checked progress. Eventually, there would be rebellion against the old ways. This new life of the West would not be an easy birth.

Printing Press: It is perhaps this event that had the most influence since the time of the Apostasy itself toward the conditions needed for the Restoration. Before that time the teachings of the Bible were open to a select few. Those few sometimes manipulated both the text and the teachings contained in them. This happened from the very start of the spread of the Christian message as soon as letters could be written. Once the printing press was developed, many more people could read the message for themselves. They started to see things differently from how they were originally taught by the official representatives. Beyond that, scripture and revelation could be shared with many. There would be minimal tampering of the message. The words of a book might as well be set in stone.

Reformation: The message might still be imperfect and dependant on the false teachings of a fallen church, but at least there were options. People no longer had to look for the answers from one source. They could decide for themselves what and who to believe. This set up the conditions for new churches.

The United States: This, and the Reformation, is usually where all other event related reasons start. Even these are incomplete. The United States is important for more than the Constitution. It is the place that the Nephites had lived and where the Book of Mormon was hidden. It is a place where ideas from the Enlightenment and Reformation coagulated to form a relatively free society. The open land offered a way for beleaguered Saints to get away from enemies and live in the desert, much like the faithful has done since Enoch. Most importantly, it is a land especially blessed by God for His people to live – along with the land of Israel.

Choice Spirit: Finally, the Restoration had to wait for a boy named Joseph Smith Jr. to be born. Perhaps God could have chosen anyone of similar qualities. God certainly warned he could be replaced. At any rate, he came at a time when historical events had climaxed. A New World with new ideas was born and ready to flourish. He wasn’t the only one to claim visions, revelations, and a new message related to the old teachings. Then again, Jesus was not the only one declaring a messianic hope for Israel during his times. If anything, such an abundance of competing prophets is its own sign of the times of extraordinary divine history. The Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ had come.

This is simply a sketch of the reasons for such a late date of the restoration. History had to have time for developing the right conditions. There is no way to say if an earlier date would have brought a miscarriage for the Restoration. Ultimately, but incomplete as it always is, the real answer to the question of why 1830 is because it was God’s will. Time for Him is inconsequential.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

An Underrated Joseph

This is the third and last in a series of discussions on biographies of Joseph Smith. It is a look at the best and worst of important works dealing with his life. Each criticism is broken down into three sections: positive aspects, negative aspects, and implications.

Joseph Smith: The First Mormon by Donna Hill

Positive: This biography manages to do something that others have not reached. It treats Joseph Smith and his friends and enemies as people. She does more than talk about what people say and do, but how they felt during their experiences. The way this is accomplished is to allow sources to tell the story, often revealing what those involved felt about events. It becomes much more personal than other biographies have been written. Her extensive use of a variety of sources also helps the reader feel they are making discoveries right along with her. Whenever she narrates the story, she allows a quote or two to fill in the details.

No matter how controversial the subject, she remains as neutral as possible. As an “orthodox believer” none of what she talked about was troubling. Her approach was never like correlation or trying to be revisionist. It seemed like good story telling with the inclusion of pertinent information. There was nothing new and groundbreaking, but the book did seem to fill in the details. As great as the biography was, it is still strange that it remains to this day in the background.

Negative: The start of her problems might be the title of the book. The saying goes that you should never judge a book by its cover, but in this instance it becomes hard to ignore such a boring name. I have tried to think of a more interesting title appropriate to her writing without success. It would have to be a quote from one of Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo sermons to follow precedent.

Another weakness occurs right after Liberty Jail about the time Nauvoo was to be established. She decides to write some essays about such topics as polygamy and the priesthood ban. As important as these subjects are, they detract from her otherwise wonderful linear narration. She loses focus and never gets it back. Perhaps I should give the Nauvoo section another read, but it seems the personal nature of her writing never recovers from the tangents. What could have been my personal definitive biography of Joseph Smith flounders.

Implications: It seems that biographies on Joseph Smith can either be about the history or the personality and never completely both. Some may believe that they are dealing with both by focusing on one, but it is never that easy. Donna Hill comes close to achieving that combination, but misses the mark. It would be great if there was an author that could combine the talents of both Bushman and Hill as they compliment each other. Luckily, we can read what they wrote and compare the two.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Rough Synthesis of Smith

This is the second in a series of discussions on biographies of Joseph Smith. It is a look at the best and worst of important works dealing with his life. Each criticism is broken down into three sections: positive aspects, negative aspects, and implications.

Rough Stone Rolling by Richard L. Bushman

Positive: Most of what makes this particular book good was done in Joseph Smith and the Beginning of Mormonism by the same author. There is a lot of information crammed together in a seamless narrative. It takes careful concentration to not miss a source or worth while insight, either of Joseph Smith or history of the LDS Church. Personally, I don't think his complete biography is as "can't put down" engaging as his shorter work. Still, part of that is his commitment to telling the whole story of a singular individual. It probably would have been much better to try and write two volumes. Then again, that could just be wishful thinking on my part with how much I enjoyed the book.

What he does proves how good of an author and historian he can be at his best. Instead of going simply from one incident to another as most biographies by nature do, he treats each chapter as an essay on several topics. This wouldn't work well with a lesser writer (as I will explain on my third installment), but it seems to fit the intentions of Bushman. Again, I can't help but be reminded of B.H. Roberts who seems even more to be a architype of Mormon history writing than ever. This time, instead of the bibliography it is the theology that comes to mind. Bushman returns Joseph Smith to his rightful place; a theologian and community building prophet. The book tries to look at Joseph Smith on his own terms, rather than define those terms for him. True, that is something that a believing Mormon might do who agrees with him more than disagrees. The brilliancy is that for the most part this isn't an apologetic as much as a study of religious ideas expressed and developed. For once Joseph Smith's theology and organizational building are focused on as much as his history and trials or motivations. For that alone the book should be commended. You come away from this book understanding Joseph Smith, because you understand his religious ideas. Without that foundation the man cannot be fathomed.

What marks this book as "definitive" where others lack is Bushman's synthesis of decades long studies. He doesn't seem to ignore major works simply because he disagrees with them. In fact, he uses them to get a clearer picture. He has his favorites to be sure, but not at the quick rejection of others. It might not be the most comprehensive book about Joseph Smith, but it is for studies about him. I had waited about ten years for the release of this book after reading his first major biographical treatment. Such a passing of time ended up crucial to the end result. This is a must read for Mormon history enthusiasts and others.

Negative: His strength is also his weakness. There is not a lot, if anything, new in the book. The main problem with the book might be my own. There is really very few new things or insights that haven't been expressed elsewhere. Perhaps that just says something about the state of Joseph Smith history research. There was nothing substantially new to be said. All of it was written somewhere by someone in this book or that symposium. However, he has only claimed to be an historian and not an investigator. His genious and that of this book is that he can take desperate elements and create a life rather than an argument or test subject.

Still, Joseph Smith sometimes did get lost in the shuffle of his essay approach. He could have used more personal sources, such as journals and letters, for a more intimate treatment of the people involved. That includes Joseph Smith where personality becomes essay subject a few times. Perhaps a look at the inner individual was not the main concern of the book. It was labeled "A Cultural Biography" on the cover. With that in mind, Bushman did well exploring Joseph Smith's influence from and creation of culture. There is another book that has a better personal approach, although often overlooked and underrated. That will be talked about later.

Implications: I have already said some things above that would go here. Two main points I would like to reiterate. First, in order to understand Joseph Smith the biographer has to take his religion seriously - even if they don't believe it. Otherwise it becomes expose and not biography. You can't seperate the man from what he considered his mission. Second, after ten years the amount of new information seems to have hit a brick wall. The Joseph Smith papers project might change that, but we have yet to see. Finally, even with no new info, there is plenty that exists to evaluate a complex religious personality in several ways.

Next Installment: Joseph Smith the First Mormon by Donna Hill

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Still Not a Real History

This is the first in a series of discussions on biographies of Joseph Smith. It is a look at the best and worst of important works dealing with his life. Each criticism is broken down into three sections: positive aspects, negative aspects, and implications.

No Man Knows My History by Fawn M. Brody

Positive: It is hard for me to pick out much good out of her book, as its whole purpose is to attack and destroy the reputation of Joseph Smith and those who believe him to be a prophet. Yet, to be completely fair I am going to try. It is clear that she is an engaging writer with a smooth writing style. Dealing with as complicated a subject as she is, the text remains easy to read and directly to the point. There is no awkwardness to the flow as readers are able to follow the arguments effortlessly.

She is the first to really look closely at a number of original newspapers and documents. Most other biographies used The History of the Church practically as the only document. It was because of her that the real discussion of things could get off the ground and be discussed. However, how much "original" information and sources were new to her work is arguable. You cannot look at her bibliographical notes without a reminder of B.H. Roberts' historical works. She used far less unknown material than what it at first seems. Most of her "discoveries" come from examinations of long neglected newspaper articles of Joseph Smith's day. Still, she started the New Mormon History; both for good and bad.

Negative: The books biggest problem starts nearly from the first page. As was said, it is too full of bias and expose narrative to be of much historical use. That the vast majority of historians and lay people use this as the definitive biography shows an ignorance and lack of charity toward him and his followers. The facts are slanted and evidence pieced together by innuendo. For a more in-depth study of the vast flaws of the book, it is best to read "No Mame, That's Not History" by Hugh Nibley.

She uses two bait and switch tactics to redirect the evidence more toward her liking. The first is to say something happened, or didn't happen, by emphasising something totally different. An example of that is the classic accusation that Joseph Smith didn't beat his wife at a particular moment, as if he had done so at other times without any evidence that he ever did. Second and more troublesome for her use of sources is expressing reservations about the writings, but using them anyway as the main information. That goes as much for anti-Mormon as for pro-Mormon sources. Those parts that don't fit her preconcieved ideas are tossed aside while those that do are branded as indespensable. Yet, they often come from the same documents without justifying the choice with at times anything more than an out of context throw away statement from somewhere else.

I would suggest ignoring this work if it wasn't so important as a history making book on its own. She pretty much invented the Liberal, Atheistic, Expose driven history of Mormonism seen today. Still, she did write it at a time when "Historical Jesus" studies were slowly gaining momentum in the United States. It much more resembles them than a general biography. Both have at the center a disdain for faith and the divine.

Implications: Her book has never fully been looked at for the number of flaws and false evidence. There was a whole book dedicated to looking at "The God Makers" and refuting its lies. The same could easily be done with this book for anyone who is interested in such a task. It would be time consuming to be sure. There is a lot of information available for use. Still, it wouldn't be impossible and already there has been many chinks in the armor from years of studies. It would be the ultimate attack on the Sunstone and Signiture Books group as this is their sacred scripture.

Luckily for those like myself who love and have faith in LDS Church history and doctrine, hers is not the last word. There are two other books that I feel do a more admirable job of understanding Joseph Smith. They don't have as much of an underlying axe to grind. At least one of them is a bonefide and well respected historian. His book will be looked at next time.

Next Installment: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard L. Bushman